10 Classic albums you’ve (probably) never heard of

This is not an album review anthology as such, and may only be of interest if you happen to be ‘into’ my genres of music. That said, the tastes range from folk to experimental to ambient to hard rock to psychedelic; so hopefully there’s something for everyone. The desire to write this blog came from a predominant reactionary theme in modern culture that music has become one-dimensional and too commercialised. Many of my contemporaries bemoan the dearth of original music – particularly in the hard rock/blues rock sphere. They continually hark back to the seventies when musical dinosaurs roamed the earth – a view that I share to an extent. This particular decade saw such an expanse of creativity from Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin; the Punk explosion in the middle of the decade, and then the lead in to new romanticism and hair metal at the turn of the eighties.So, is there any music out there today to rival this explosion? I like to think there is. Much of my attraction to the seventies is nostalgia and I think all you need to do when hearing a new type of music is lift your mindset out of this straitjacket and imagine you’re a teenager again. A time of great change for all of us, when hormones are rushing around our bodies and minds, a time when the soundtrack of our lives is often laid down.

With this in mind, I offer the following for you to dip into. They are albums that I keep returning to and will play right up the day I throw off this mortal coil. I’ll give youtube links where possible so you can check out what I consider to be some of the best of the artist’s songs from the album I have chosen.

The Usual suspects – Joe Lynn Turner (Soft metal)

You may possibly have heard of Joe Lynn Turner, or ‘Joleen’ as Ritchie Blackmore used to call him, from his stint as lead vocalist with Rainbow, Yngwie Malmsteen and Deep Purple. His voice is very recognisable, having a bluesy, soulful quality that hit the mark in many genres including AoR rock, heavy metal and blues itself.

Whereas I love his contributions spanning Rainbow’s ‘Difficult to Cure’ to ‘Bent out of shape’ period, it is this album which I keep returning to. His team of songwriters and performers at the time included guitarists Al Pitrelli and Karl Cochran, and whether it was this combination of musicians or the addition of Bob Held – his producer, it resulted in a work of catchy, listen-able soft metal that occasionally lifts the hairs on the back of your neck. There’s no additional connection with the film of the same name (starring Kevin Spacey), but with titles like ‘Power of Love’, ‘Devil’s door’ and ‘Blood money’, there’s enough to send your imagination soaring.

Power of love

Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion (?)

Heard of Steve Wilson? He is rapidly gaining god-like status in the sphere of prog rock because of his tenure leading the band, ‘Porcupine Tree’ and his magnificent solo work. Couple this with his production and engineering skills making him the go-to guy for Pink Floyd and King Crimson remasters, then you have an impressive pedigree indeed. What if said guru was to team up with Mikael Åkerfeldt, frontman and guitarist with Opeth – a progressive metal band from Sweden? A cacophony of metal and Floyd-esque pastoral segments perhaps? Think again. This collaboration could not be likened to anything produced by these artists before. In fact it defies classification. Sometimes it features ambient sequences, at others there are discordant experimental interludes, mesmerising acoustic guitars, weird vocal harmonies and falsetto vocals.

Overall, the theme is dark. Whether it be the opening ‘Drag Ropes’ with its underlying story featuring the burning of a witch, or ‘Hag’, which conjures up images and feelings of oppressive nightmare/sleep paralysis and phantasms from across the great divide, you cannot escape the atmosphere of lurking disquiet. Not necessarily ‘horror’ (although there’s plenty of that), but a transportation to places you are both drawn to and yet repulsed from at the same time. It may interest you to investigate the making of the video for ‘Drag Ropes’ (here) as it features a spooky presentation of shadow puppet imagery.

I often put this album on as background music when writing horror or suspenseful short stories. It sets the mood for writing material that provokes and disturbs. That said, there are uplifting passages too – such as Åkerfeldt’s soaring vocals on ‘Ljudet Innan’ and the beginning of ‘Happy.’ It’s certainly not an album that leaves you unaffected.
Mention should also be made of the album art. It features the work of artist Hans Arnold, who died fairly recently but left a legacy of work that you can view on my Pinterest board. Like all good art, his pieces invite you to revisit them time and again to see a different perspective and evoke a different cocktail of emotions each time.

Drag ropes

Eat me in St. Louis – It Bites (Prog rock/pop/alternative)

It Bites enjoy cult status the world over, and have a particular following here in Middleland as they are one of West Cumbria’s most well-known musical exports (some would say ONLY musical export.) This status has been gained partly through the vehicle of charismatic frontman, Francis Dunnery – multi-instrumentalist, astrologer and expounder on philosophical and spiritual concepts. This fact however would overlook the significant contribution made by the rest of this four-piece band. John Beck is an incredibly talented and original keyboardist, easily on a par with Tony Banks or Rick Wakeman. Bob Dalton is a drummer of extraordinary technical prowess and a stalwart constant in the band’s varied history. All members sing as well, meaning their complex yet catchy songs are reproduced and expanded upon live in an impressive manner.

Unfortunately, the original line-up is no more and they only produced three studio albums, each of which are brilliant. Yet, to me, the crowning achievement was their last album, ‘Eat me in St. Louis’ – a pun on the classic film, ‘Meet me in St. Louis.’ Their inventiveness produced a selection of songs containing hooks, virtuoso musicianship and the occasional quirky time signature. I love the way Dunnery employs nonsense lyrics at times as a method of transforming his voice into an instrument. This can be heard at the start of ‘Underneath your pillow’ and during the mid-section of ‘Leaving without you,’ for example.

The album kicks off explosively with ‘Positively Animal’ in a manner reminiscent of Deep Purple’s ‘In Rock’ album. This segues into the self-deprecatory, introspective number, ‘Underneath your pillow.’ I particularly loved their live rendition of this featuring a mournful Francis Dunnery pleading with the fates to grant him his almost sinister request. ‘Still too young to remember’ was the single from the album (brought out in 1989) and, incidentally, was my introduction to the band when I viewed their video on TV. Not as big a hit as their ‘Calling all the heroes’, but a melodic, addictive number nonetheless. It features lines like ‘there’s a woman in my head, she should be in my bed.’ A desperate song of unrequited love, perhaps?

There are so many great songs on this record: ‘Ice melts into water’ never fails to get tears welling up in me (I know – I’m just a big softie,) while ‘Sister Sarah’ is a breakneck speed tour de force featuring soaring solo notes from Dunnery’s guitar and luscious vocal harmonies from the rest of the band. ‘Murder of the planet earth’ is a horror-scape poetically depicting the degradation of the environment by humans small to great.
If you want to see why It Bites have a following all over the world (particularly on Japan) then check out their self-produced live video offerings here and here.
You won’t regret getting into this band whatever your musical preferences.

Still too young to remember
Underneath your pillow

Marcus Bonfanti – Hard times (Blues)

I first saw Marcus Bonfanti at Maryport, (Cumbria) at a fairly intimate venue with his full four-piece outfit. I took my daughter along with me – quite surprising that she volunteered for this given her musical tastes at the time included the Pretty Reckless and the Black Veil Brides. When you hear the title ‘Blues,’ it conjures up images of a cotton picker waking up with a hangover bemoaning the fact that his woman left him and his dog just died. Well, ignore the stereotype (steeped in rich history as it is) because, as my daughter found, MB brings blues into the twenty-first century adding touches of folk, rock and soul. He’s brought out three albums, a few EPs and I have every one. His live performances are entertaining from start to finish, featuring deep growly vocals, heart-felt guitar work seeded in the greatest of blues traditions, and a story-telling sense of humour that weaves each song together with seasoned skill. He also appeals to one such as I because each performance of the same song is different as he improvises at every opportunity.

He also performs solo shows acoustically, and these are every bit as entertaining, giving a more folky take on the original electrified numbers.

I’ve chosen his debut offering as an introduction because it includes my favourite song of his, ‘The girl I knew.’ This highlights MB’s lyrical prowess as he describes wistfully meeting up with a girl he was besotted with but now lives life as a shadow of her former self. Other numbers visit typical blues subjects such as ‘Now I’m gone (is your life better)’. It’s typical in featuring his resonator guitar tuned to an open chord and punctuated by flurries of tasteful lead breaks. ‘Not meant for this world’ has an almost Hendrixian feel to it but touches on soul in its references.

If MB ever frequents your local town, go and listen to him. Even if you’re not a blues aficionado, I guarantee you’ll be entertained by the man.

The girl I knew
Diamonds in the rust

Scatter the Crow – Slaves to Gravity (Post-grunge/alternative)

Led by the magnetic front-man and lyricist, Tommy Gleeson, this outfit unfortunately chose a very prophetic name for their stage persona, born out of a frustration at the record industry’s seeming torpor when promoting new artists. and a sense that any original and creative musician faces an irrepressible crushing opposition when trying to garner an audience and make a name for themselves.

They were formed from the ashes of The Ga Ga’s, and I remember seeing said former band performing their song ‘Sex’ on a video posted in a Classic Rock channel link. When I saw STG’s single video, ‘Big Red’ I recognised the lead singer and made the connection. As a song, ‘Big Red’ seems to encapsulate the vibe of STG – that of dark, disturbing, mind-bending imagery. Gleeson’s lyrics, like Ronnie James Dio’s, seem to allow you to read into them whatever you like. Take the opening line ‘Caught a three day shiver from the masquerade,’ for example: What desolate landscape or scene of tortured experience does that epitomise? The video that accompanies the song is also a masterwork of noir and like nothing you’ve ever seen before, I would posit.

The opening song, ‘Heaven is a lie’ is a ‘drop-D’ venture into a bitter panorama of defiance, Gleeson railing at the gods and an establishment narrative that perpetuates slavery to the promises offered by these forces. Each and every song is a masterwork, exploring dark landscapes of human experience with loud and quiet segments performed in a variety of tempos and styles. The overall ‘voice’, however, is distinctive; the result of a resonant rhythm section featuring the guttural bass of Toshi Ogawa and the masterful drumming of Jason Thomopoulos. Mark Verney’s guitar work (how could I not comment on the guitar) is highly original and crafted to extend and lift the songs’ imagery to greater heights. He avoids cliche and uses a variety of effects and techniques to complement the overall effect.

Highlights on ‘Scatter the Crow’ include ‘Mr Regulator,’ ‘Gutterfly,’ ‘Doll-size’ and the acoustic end-point, ‘Rosa and the Ocean Blue,’ but I can’t emphasise enough how every single song is a must-listen.

Funnily enough, I used to play this record on my ipod shuffle as I did my Saturday morning 5 mile run, and it always brings back memories of jogging to the sometimes discordant melodies and weird time signatures.

I hesitate to mention this, but I even produced my own cover version of ‘Rosa and the Ocean Blue’ as a tribute to a band that, sadly, are no longer with us. Their follow-up album, ‘UnderwaterOuterspace’ was equally inventive and well worth a listen, although it is this debut that holds prime place for me.

Big Red

Farao – Til’ it’s all forgotten (Folk/pop/alternative)

It always strikes me how a sense of synchronicity accompanies my musical wanderings and tastes. My introduction to Kari Jahnsen’s ethereal and mesmerising voice came from a recommendation received via a Facebook friend of my daughter’s when she attended LIPA (a musical academy in Liverpool established by Paul McCartney.) I don’t know if Jahnsen actually attended the college, but the song I heard was ‘Forces’, performed in an incarnation called ‘Like Spinning.’ A curious name to accompany an equally esoteric young lady. It perhaps helps that she comes from Norway – an origin that stamps a certain characteristic on any performer (see Moddi later on.) Like Spinning only brought out one EP and I wondered what happened to the singer. After doing a little research I discovered she’d re-invented herself as Farao – a reference to the Norwegian spelling of the Egyptian rulers and, interestingly, a sex dream involving the jazz saxophonist, Pharaoh Sanders. Make of that what you will!

So, Farao’s debut album, entitled ‘Til it’s all forgotten,’ extends Jahnsen’s canvas beyond her acoustic beginnings (although these will always be a favourite of mine.) She broadens the palette by including rhythms, keyboards and experimental sounds that take you to dream realms of possibility. Take her song ‘Hunter’, the video to accompany this song (a piece of art in itself) depicts someone seeking out their (romantic) quarry in a manner reminiscent of the Police’s ‘Every step you take.’ Yet, listening to it again, one can attach many different meanings to the lyrics. I love the inflections and accent that are inherent in Jahnsen’s voice and this, together with the lyrics and unusual turns of melody, make Farao a truly original artist. To be honest, there are no other tracks that stand out beyond all others. Rather, the tunes provide a soundscape that is best appreciated by playing the whole album through.
Like many of the artists featured here, Farao’s live performances provide an opportunity for different interpretations of these songs (often acoustically), and I would thoroughly recommend viewing Forces –  and Bodies as examples. I challenge you not to be captivated by her voice.

Her follow up album, ‘Pure-O’ is even more experimental and deserves a purchase even if it’s just to hear Kari Jahnsen’s exquisite voice. Although not featured on this album, I also invite you to listen to her duet on Moddi’s song, ‘Run to the Water.’ Check out the youtube comments and you’ll see two artists that are garnering a following world-wide, albeit at a ‘cult’ level.

Stranger in us all – Rainbow (Hard rock)

My appreciation of all things Blackmore related – particularly in the Rainbow incarnation – is well documented. Whereas my favourite era is that of Dio (mid to late seventies), this album (released in 1995) dwells in the shadows somewhat. Yet it marked a return to greatness after Blackmore’s well-publicised (and final) fall out with Ian Gillan, and the classic Deep Purple Mk II line-up. If you read reviews of Stranger in us all, you’ll often read comments like ‘Blackmore teaming up with a bunch of nobodies’ and the reviewer proceeding to denigrate the songs in this manner.

Don’t listen to them. Doogie White, the singer, is a great songwriter, talented singer and wondrously humorous front-man. After joining forces, Blackmore gave White the option of following a more AoR route (as in Bonnet/Turner era Rainbow) or to return to a Dio-esque direction. I’m pleased to say he chose the latter yet, at the same time, put his own stamp on the songs. The result was a truly progressive album which nodded to the past whilst injecting the Rainbow brand with a new, distinctive flavour.

The opener, ‘Wolf to the Moon,’ is one of my favourite Rainbow songs. How Blackmore was still able to invent new, hook-laden riffs, continues to astound me – yet he pulled it off here. The pace is continued with ‘Cold-hearted woman,’ but then you get a totally new direction with the song ‘Hunting humans (insatiable)’ which shows that Blackmore wasn’t resting on previous laurels. My other favourite is Rainbow’s interpretation of Grieg’s ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ (which is worth comparing to ELO’s version.) Despite a repeating motif, which would run the risk of being monotonous in lesser hands, Blackmore and White present an interpretation of monumental proportions. Doogie White’s high register vocal at the end is reminiscent of Ian Gillan at his early seventies best, and the addition of his lyrics to the song enhances it in my opinion.

By now, Blackmore had established an enduring tone and style, and the production on this album really brings this to the fore. Standout solos can be found on the aforementioned ‘Wolf to the Moon’ and ‘Black Masquerade,’ but the rhythm work and characteristic trills and inflections can be found throughout.

Sadly, this album represented the end of Blackmore’s greatness (IMHO). I respected his wish to move on to pastures new with Blackmore’s Night, but his collaboration has become stagnant over the years – and don’t get me started on the recent ‘reunion’ tour.
Check out this album if you haven’t heard it before, and experience a genius in the last throes of his originality.

Black Masquerade

Gillan – Glory Road (Hard rock)

And so to the aforementioned Ian Gillan. The first ‘serious’ band I went to see as a youngster way back in 1981. The venue was the old Market Hall, Carlisle, and I still remember the man striding out onto the stage, silhouetted against a spotlight, dry ice billowing around him. The description, ‘living legend’ was quite appropriate, clad as he was in ‘sawn-off’ denim and red trousers, hair down his back, fist held up in the air. He had just brought out his ‘Double Trouble’ album and I was in for the treat that night, culminating with the inevitable ‘Smoke on the Water’ from his Deep Purple days.

But Double Trouble isn’t quite the classic to make this hall of fame. That is reserved for Glory Road, which featured Bernie Torme on guitar, completing the line-up which I consider to be definitive Gillan. Mr Torme left after arguments about money months before I saw Gillan and went on to fill the shoes of the recently departed Randy Rhoads in Ozzie Osbourne’s band. Torme had a unique style and stage presence, incorporating feedback and distinctive runs that earned him the reputation of a ‘snake-charmer’ with the guitar, as if he was coaxing sounds out of a reluctant viper-stratocaster.

As with any album, there are many factors that contribute to its greatness, and top of my list is the songs. Gillan had a killer combination at this stage, where all band members contributed to the songwriting, but instrumental to them all was Colin Towns, the keyboard player. His combination of chord sequences and keyboard parts forms a sumptuous backdrop to these offerings. Add to this Torme’s killer riffs (many of them could rival Ritchie Backmore’s) and then Gillan’s quirky subject matter on top, and you have a unique combination that, at the time, produced a triple whammy of albums starting with ‘Mr Universe’ and progressed to GL and eventually, ‘Future Shock.’ Some of the songs on GL were carefully constructed, while yet others arose from jams or the requirement from the record company (Richard Branston’s Virgin) to come up with a single at short notice.

So, opening up the album is “Unchain your brain,’ a juggernaut rhythm driven by John McCoy’s thunderous bass and Mick Underwood’s machine-gun drumming. The sentiments of the song still resonate with me today and speak or themselves. Not letting up the pace, McCoy’s bass starts the next song, ‘Are you sure?’ It features one of my favourite Gillan lyrics:

‘Hey’, said God to the Devil with a nod,
Gonna fight you for the human race.
If I beat you with a spell and kick you out of hell
Are you sure that I can take your place?

‘No Easy Way’ is a song that, while the tune is quite pedestrian, the lyrics again strike that bell of agreement and resonate with me:

‘There ain’t no easy way to drown your sorrow.
Maybe the only way – think about tomorrow.’

Side one features what could be my favourite Gillan song of all time – ‘Sleeping on the job,’ which has Mr Gillan complaining that his partner is not providing him with the cereal crop he desires in the middle of the night. Not the most ‘woke’ set of lyrics to issue from his pen, but a juicy mix of guitar and keyboard riffs that lifts the song to great heights.

Side two kicks of with a dramatic, gothic keyboard introduction from Towns’ segueing into ‘On the rocks’ – a magnum opus that suits the subject matter down to a tee.

I’m simply picking out favourites here, which is not to minimize those I miss out, but another peak of hard rock heaven has to be ‘Running White Face City boy’. This is a biographical song recounting the day to day living of a back street boy trying to make his way surviving in a harsh environment.

To top this album off, it came with a free disc (that’s vinyl folks. This was the era of gate-fold LPs after all.) The record was called ‘For Gillan fans only’ and contained outtakes and lesser known numbers culled from Gillan’s ill-fated forays in the late seventies when pursuing a more jazz-fusion direction. There were a number of quasi-humorous introductions and interludes too, featuring pythonesque comedy at times, together with an appearance by Bruce Dickinson before he joined Iron Maiden. In those days he was called ‘Bruce Bruce,’ believe it or not!

By the amount I have written, you can see this album holds a special place in my dark heart – maybe it will come to occupy a similar position in yours too.

Sleeping on the job

Kingdom of madness – Magnum (Pomp rock)

Ever come across a musical genre called ‘Pomp rock?’ Probably not. I first heard it coined by Trevor Horn (he of Buggles – Video killed the radio star – fame.) The term disappeared as soon as it was made, but would feature bands such as Styx, late seventies’ Genesis, Rush, Marillion and, of course, Magnum. These were grandiose progressive rock outfits that often chose fantasy themes for their songs, dressed in extravagant apparel and strutted across the stage like they were performing in a Shakespearian play. Just watch Bob Catley pose as frontman in any live performance, gesticulating dramatically and roaring his vocal lines with hystrionic expertise from a frame every bit as small as Dio’s.

Magnum took a more AoR direction in the eighties, but when released in the late seventies, ‘Kingdom of Madness’ was their piece de resistance. Many quote ‘On a storyteller’s night’ as their greatest moment, but KOM possesses the compositional superiority in the concept album stakes. The songs link together in a lyrical narrative designed by their guitarist and sole composer, Tony Clarkin. In those days he looked like a bearded hobbit and certainly cut the right image for this type of music.

The measure of this band’s influence on me can perhaps be measured in that their lyrics often infiltrate my psyche when writing. Images conjured by ‘The Bringer’ infused book 2 in my Psychonaut series, while the title track itself, with its maniacal mid-section, creates a vibe that often sets me in a mood for writing dark fantasy in general. By today’s standards, the lyrics and song titles seem a little cheesy, but remember this was the age when such things were invented, and Magnum were trail-blazers in this respect (along with the likes of Uriah Heep and Triumph – to name but two.) Other epic numbers include ‘Lords of Chaos’ and ‘Invasion’, which is lifted by Clarkin’s signature harmony guitar lick post mid-section.

The only downside to this album is perhaps the artwork. It’s not bad, featuring the eye of a cat containing a fantasy scene in its iris, but I only wish they had teamed up with Rodney Matthews at this stage – an artist who was to adorn their covers for the next four decades. But, this aside, KOM will transport you to realms of fantasy as you listen to it. Definitely not one for having on in the background. Put it on the turntable, sit back in your armchair, and allow yourself to be lifted into alternative spheres of reality.

Kingdom of Madness

Moddi – Unsongs (Folk/alternative)

I’ll finish with a relatively recent one. I mentioned Moddi before when covering Farao’s album above. How would I describe his music? Well, the nordic influence is obvious from the start, both in his accent and the flavour of the music he creates. His vocal style is very ‘breathy’ and I guess this may put some people off him, but there’s no doubt he sings with great passion. Then there’s his material – not quite like anything you will have heard before. His early albums often featured songs written entirely in Norwegian. Personally, I love this as the language lends itself to the subject matter – which is as varied as it is provocative. He accompanies his songs with the acoustic guitar, but occasionally the accordian as well – yet another reason he may put you off, but don’t let any preconceptions cloud your judgment here.

Unsongs took an even more unusual slant in that it features cover songs, each of which was banned in one or more countries. The reasons in each case merit further inspection and only add to the intrigue. For example, ‘Army Dreamers’ was originally a song by Kate Bush. It was banned from airplay on BBC radio during the first Iraq war as it was deemed to present a demoralising influence on the armed forces at the time. The thought of your typical squaddie being deterred by Kate Bush from entering the field of battle is quite beyond me, but then this illustrates the nature of censorship and state control over broadcasting and the media.

As you will probably guess, many of these songs were banned for political reasons. Take ‘Matter of habit’ for example. It was originally written by Yizhar Ashdot, an Israeli rock star (often referred to as the Bruce Springsteen of Israel) and banned in Israel (obviously) because it highlighted the plight of the Palestinian people. It follows a narrative from the pov of Israeli soldiers and puts across how any group of people can become dehumanised. The lyrics are directly based on quotes from testimonies of ex-soldiers. The story goes that Ashdot was tuning his guitar before going to play this song when a radio station commander ran into the room and physically tore the guitar off him, because he wouldn’t accept the song being played on his channel.

Other song’s origins are less political and more cultural. Take The Shaman and the Thief; the song itself wasn’t so much banned as the language it was written in. Norway has its own history of prejudice and this song comes from a backdrop of Norwegian discrimination against the Sami people. Moddi described in an interview how Norway has attempted to ‘assimilate’ these people and banned the Sami language altogether. If you’d like to read Moddi’s reasons behind choosing each song, you can find an absorbing track by track interview here: https://daily.bandcamp.com/lists/moddi-unsongs-track-by-track
All of the above wouldn’t endear me to this album if it wasn’t for the quality of the music, however. (I still tend to switch off from Bob Dylan as I find his melodies and song structures monotonous, despite the awesomeness of his lyrics.) I am attracted by a combination of these unsong’s minor keys, Moddi’s use of capo to produce higher tones on his guitar and, of course, his quirky voice.

Check out Matter of Habit here
And the Shaman and the thief here

~ ~ ~

That completes my round-up. I realise that my list is tailored to my tastes but perhaps you have found something to dig your teeth into, and never let it be said that good music is dead!

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