Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Starcastle

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Starcastle

Starcastle is one of those bands I had no idea existed during the 1970s but discovered their music later in life. In the mid 90s, I read about their style being similar to progressive rock giants Yes, a band that I’ve loved for a very long time and decided to buy their self-titled debut album, which had just recently been released on CD for the first time.

Starcastle.jpgThe moment the keyboard intro to track one, Lady of the Lake, began, I knew I’d discovered a keeper. The similarities to Yes are immediately obvious: Herb Schlitt’s keyboard stylings are heavily influenced by Rick Wakeman, Gary Strater’s bass playing is clearly from the school of Chris Squire, and Terry Luttrell sings more like Jon Anderson than any of Anderson’s replacements in Yes.

The band featured two guitarists instead of one, but by the time I’d finished the seven-track album, I felt like I’d discovered a lost Yes album. That, however, is not a complaint, but an acknowledgment of what Starcastle had achieved: an American progressive rock album equal to anything that Kansas had created, and an album that could hold its own with the epics produced by the European giants.

Many critics of Starcastle rightfully point to how similar the album is to a Yes album, but they fail to mention how good the songwriting is. Lady of the Lake can hold its own with almost anything Yes or Genesis has ever produced. The vocal harmonies throughout are superb and better than most progressive rock bands. The musicianship is top notch. The song arrangements are varied but effortless with layers of texture that allow multiple listens to catch all of what is happening.

I think my favorite part of this album is the sensation of light that it creates. Not light in terms of the heaviness of the music or arrangements, but literally feeling at times like I’m listening to light. It’s a quality that Jon Anderson has often tried to create with his solo albums, yet never as successfully as Starcastle does on their debut album.

The band released three more albums before falling apart. Fountains of Light is more original and I recommend that as a starting point for hard-core prog fans. Citadel is also good, but doesn’t match the first two. Around 2000, Chronos I was released, which was an archive album of demos that predate the debut and is easily as good as Citadel. Several members reunited to released Song of Times in 2007, which provides a nice bookend to the band’s career.

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Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Uriah Heep

Today, I’m going to start what I hope is something I write about once a week, something that’s near and dear to my heart and ears: 1970s rock, the era I grew up in. So much great music that has been forgotten or never known to the generations that have grown up since the arrival of Nirvana.

My rock collection dates back to the late 40s and early 50s, and I love much of the 60s, but the music of the 70s is what formed much of who I am, and I’d like to share some of what’s been forgotten. Maybe not by old rockers, but surely by those younger than 30.

I’ll start with my favorite band, Uriah Heep. They formed in the late 60s as Spice, developed from a typical R&B band to one of the earliest of proto-progressive metal bands. Then they added organist/guitarist Ken Hensley, and changed their name to Uriah Heep in early 1970, releasing their first album Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble (or just Uriah Heep in the US). The band centered around Ken’s songwriting and heavy Hammond B3, David Byron’s soaring vocals, Mick Box’s wah-wah drenched guitar, Paul Newton’s melodic bass, and an ever-changing lineup of drummers (four over the first three albums). Their albums were on par with early Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but with vocal harmonies that rivaled the Beach Boys or Three Dog Night.

demons_and_wizardsThe biggest change came in 1972 when Gary Thain replaced Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake became their permanent drummer. This lineup created the band’s most famous album, Demons and Wizards, which included two of their biggest hits, Easy Livin’ and The Wizard. It also includes two of their biggest epics, Circle of Hands and Paradise/The Spell, the latter a progressive rock masterpiece. In fact, there’s not a single weak song on the album, and the non-album b-side (which is now included on most reissues), Why, features one of the best bass solos in rock history.

Uriah Heep’s sound had quite an impact on many bands, including Queen and Styx. The sound on both of those bands’ early albums owes a great deal to Heep’s early albums, but especially Demons and Wizards.

The band continued to release high quality albums throughout the 70s even as the lineup changed several times. Eventually, even Ken Hensley left, leaving Mick Box as the sole founding member. He has soldiered on, the band continuing to this day. The band is still releasing high quality albums, especially beginning with 1995’s Sea of Light up through 2014’s Outsider. You can check out more information at uriah-heep.com.

 

The Princess Problem, Part 3

Read Part 2 here

—3—

I arrived at Wizards Are Us shortly after the cock’s first crow the next morning. After a long wait, the stout wooden door was unbolted. Soon I was soon tapping my fingers on the arm of one of the comfy couches, listening to the vacant-headed receptionist chomp away. An even longer wait ensued until finally Mitzi popped out, accompanied by an even shorter gal with close-cropped black hair and large brown eyes. Despite a stern gaze that tightened her features into sharp points, she was quite pretty.

“Sir Roger, I’d like you to meet Rosa, your new wizard assistant.”

rosa.jpgMy jaw nearly unhinged as Rosa abruptly stuck her hand out. It was only then that I noticed her robe, which reached only to mid-thigh, was indeed embroidered with stars and half-moons and other wizardly symbols. I took her hand reluctantly, and she squeezed it with an impressive grip.

Pleased to meet you, Sir Roger.”

“Bu… bu… but you’re a gal! Gals are supposed to be witches!”

She frowned, anger sparking her eyes, and jammed her fists against her hips.

“No man’s going to saddle me with a broomstick or put me behind a cauldron! I can do a wizard’s job as well as any man!”

The venom in her voice shoved me back a step or two as my hands flew up of their own accord to ward her off.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I never met a female wizard before.”

“Well,” said Mitzi smoothly, “I’m glad to see you two are getting along so well.” As she placed a hand on both of our backs, gently ushering us towards the door, she said, “Rosa, make sure you check in when your job is done so we can get you a new assignment. Sir Roger, I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased with Rosa’s work and I hope you’ll choose Wizards Are Us for any future needs that arise. Goodbye!” And with that, the door shut firmly, leaving the two of us alone together on the landing above the rickety stairs.

“So mister big shot mercenary, who’s this princess wench I’m supposed to help you find?”

I cocked an eyebrow at her language.

“Sorry,” she said, “my mouth sometimes gets carried away. Let me rephrase that. Won’t you please inform me about the princess I have been hired to help you save from some fate worse than death?” The sarcasm in her voice dripped thicker than molasses.

Sighing, I pulled out the oil portrait of my mysterious princess from within one of the deep pockets inside my tastefully gold-inlaid cloak. Rosa yanked it from my hand to study it.

“Well, she’s certainly ugly enough to be a princess.”

“Ugly? Are you nuts?”

“What! You think she’s good looking? Her nose is crooked, her eyes offset, her hairstyle a century old. Where do you men get such strange ideas?”

“Well, I, uh, that is…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Typical male. Can’t defend yourself when faced with the facts. But if we’re gonna get anywhere, you’d better tell me all you know about this wench.”

I took a deep breath and slowly uncurled my fists before relating to Rosa what little the boss had mentioned to me prior to his demise, including his unfinished warning.

As I finished, Rosa let out a big sigh. “Princess Lalena, huh? Well, from what I’ve heard, I suppose you may have a point about her attractiveness. Still, there are rumors about her…” Rosa’s voice trailed off ominously.

I was about to ask her what she meant when a furtive flicker across the street caught my eye. Distracted, I missed what Rosa said next but I did indeed spot a heavily cowled figure hiding behind a column across the street. It seemed to be staring at me. What is it with me and all these heavily cowled figures?

“Sir Roger, did you hear me?” said Rosa, disturbing my thoughts. “Can I go ahead with the spell?”

“Uh, oh, uh, yeah, sure, whatever.” What spell was she talking about? I returned my attention to the heavily cowled figure, who was striding rapidly down the street towards us.

I’m still not exactly certain what happened next and in what order, but here’s my best approximation: Rosa uttered something arcane that sounded like a cat with its tail being cut off. A weird glow surrounded us and everything but Rosa and myself grew hazy. I remember a loud whoop and the cloaked figure racing toward us with a long dagger raised in one hand. The hood fell back and for a brief instant before everything disappeared I glimpsed the face of our attacker. She looked very familiar but ephemeral. Then all faded…

On to Part 4

The Princess Problem, Part 2

read Part 1 here

—2—

I landed with a thud outside the back door. A half-dozen more thuds swiftly followed. At the sight of the bull-like horned heads of the Akatan bouncers, my would-be captors sprang up and sprinted away.

“Hey you sissies!” I shouted. “They’re just bouncers, not used chariot salesmen!” But my opponents never looked back.

As I bent to recover my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, I noticed a small, rectangular, green-and-white piece of parchment lying in the dust. Picking it up I read, “Kelly Mercenaries—We Fill All Your Plundering Needs.” Instantly, a solution for my predicament sprang to mind. Rushing to the nearest crystal ball booth, I opened the Yellowed Parchments and thumbed my way to Temporary Help. I quickly scanned the ads and lists of addresses until a name caught my eye: “Wizards Are Us,” replete with a portrait of a white-bearded gentleman with the tall pointy cap and long flowing robe befitting his position. My decision was made.

Solvang’s Central Business District, while a good stretch of the legs away, was nearly as seedy as the Red Light District surrounding the Blackmore. Filth cluttered the narrow dirt lanes and buildings tottered in serious need of restoration. Merchants’ stalls lined both sides of the streets, although several were starting to close at this late hour. I hoped I was not too late.

Then, beneath a sagging awning, I descried a deep purple placard with appropriate mystical symbols. Hastening over, I discovered I had indeed found Wizards Are Us. As I gingerly stepped into the dilapidated building and climbed a rickety staircase, I wondered what kind of wizards would work for a company in a construct in such a state of disrepair.

When I opened the stout wooden door at the top of the stairs, however, my mouth gaped in surprise. A plush interior with thick red carpet and soft leather couches welcomed me. Tapestries of lovely seascape scenes covered two walls. Opposite me stood an imposing oak desk complete with receptionist. A cute gal with bleached blond hair and extensive black kohl makeup, she lowered her copy of The Solvang Scandal (not the most trustworthy of news sources, I must say) as I stepped up. She looked me up and down with nearly vacant eyes, all the while continuously chomping open-mouthed on something, then asked, “Uh, can I like, uh, help you?”

“Yes, miss. I’d like to hire one of your wizards.”

“Uh, like, sure. Just a minute.” She whirled her head down the hallway and screeched, “Hey, Mitzi, up front and center!” Then she swiveled back to me and said sweetly, “Why don’t you, like, have a seat? Mitzi’ll be, uh, right out to help you.”

I plopped into one of the cushy couches but did not have long to wait before a petite, bright-eyed gal with brown curly hair bounced out of the hallway.

“Hello, Sir,” she announced perkily, extending her hand. “My name’s Mitzi Dupree. How can we be of service to you today?”

I rose, shook her hand, and said with serious gloom, “I need a wizard to help me out.”

“Well, come with me, sir, and let’s just see what we can arrange.”

I accompanied her to her office, a small cell hungbaby_dragon___reedited_by_luna_sregulartales-d9npcy8.png with cutesy tapestries of baby dragons and the like. Once seated, I explained my situation to her.

She nodded thoughtfully as I spoke, then asked, “You realize, of course, that the level of expertise that we can offer directly correlates with how much you’re willing to spend.”

“Gimme an idea.”

She consulted a parchment on her desk before responding. “Well, a top-of-the-line graybeard with full cap and
robe runs 75 silver pieces per week. An experienced wizard with a short cap and full robe is 50, and our standard full robe, no cap is 25.”

I opened my pouch. It was not nearly that full. I dropped a dozen silver pieces onto her desk.

“What can I get for this much?”

She frowned. “Hmmm. We don’t have much to offer at that price.” She flipped through her sheaves for a few minutes and then her face brightened once more as she pulled out a single manuscript. “I think I have just the right wizard for you, someone who’s straight out of our Wizards Are Us Training Academy. No cap and only a short robe, mind you, but an eager spirit and full of determination. Good with numbers, too.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “All right, I’ll try him.”

“Great. We’ve just got some parchment work to fill out and then we’ll have your wizard here first thing tomorrow morning!”

On to Part 3

The Princess Problem, Part 1

—1—

The Blackmore Tavern is not the world’s safest place.

But how could I know? The Blackmore proclaimed its robust good nature for all to see on the faded wooden placard of a minstrel’s lute hanging askew above the half-shattered door.

Of course, I had to duck when a scaly-skinned Torg hurtled backwards through the doorway, apparently an unwitting victim of some dastardly fiend inside. Unless, of course, the Torg was the dastardly fiend.

Patting the scabbard of my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, I stepped carefully over the inert Torg and into the large, torch-lit central room. I deftly dodged a pair of grappling Akatas as they toppled past me. It was a mite noisier for lunch than I had expected, with a bottle breaking here and a death scream there, but I did not think my business would be affected.

a1f688524a684790f27844d70a7ba204_full.jpgI strode briskly across the room, throwing only a few punches along the way, all purely in self-defense. I don’t normally derive pleasure by hurtling my fist into the face of unsuspecting beings unless, of course, I’m unusually thirsty. And I was. So, with my path well-cleared, I snatched three tankards of Blackmore Beer from the tray of a serving wench. They’d been destined for a trio of short, stocky Brimulung at a nearby table but it’s amazing what a well-placed left hook can do in silencing the complaints of fellow customers.

Choosing a table in a private booth in the far corner, I swept away the still-twitching meal left over from the previous occupants and sat down to await my boss’ arrival.

Although I was distracted by the occasional body thudding onto my table, I did not have to wait long. What else are shiny black boots for if not to thrust away such unwanted vermin in order to protect the boss’ beer?

He slid in opposite me almost unnoticed until his bench creaked rather loudly under his impressive weight. Drama has never been his strong suit. The boss wore all black, as did I, but rather than dressing proudly in studded leather and a tastefully gold-inlaid cloak, he always hides himself in a dull voluminous robe. In fact, I never have seen his face, a mystery causing me some apprehension. I worry that he must have suffered a horrible accident as a child, perchance scalding water poured on him by an unwitting mother or maybe a vengeful older brother of a girlfriend slashed open a cheek with a knife, or perhaps he inherited a father’s acne. Even in the brightest daylight, he keeps his face carefully hidden under that deep hood.

“Whspznx dzspxshxz clvzzx?” he whispered hoarsely after downing his first tankard of Blackmore Beer.

“I beg your pardon?” said I. “You’ll have to speak up. The howling is a little loud in here.”

He eased back his hood, revealing a black mask that covered nearly all his face except his nervous, shifty eyes and shiny bald pate.

“All right, all right,” he bellowed, his rancid breath blowing out under the words.” Is this better?”

I was not prepared for the onslaught and so did not handle the situation as tactfully as, in hindsight, I maybe could have.

“Phew! Have you thought of using a little mint after you eat? Freshens the breath right up, you know.”

His shoulders drooped visibly and his voice grew shaky. “Oh, knock it off, Roger. You warrior-hero types are all the same. Just because your mother slept with a god, blessing you with impossibly rugged good looks, blue eyes, and a perfectly chiseled chin, you think you can embarrass those of us spawned by demons.”

“No!” I protested weakly. “I didn’t mean that at all, sir! It’s just that your breath is, well, not pleasant.”

“Go ahead and rub it in. Crush what little remains of my ego.”

This was quickly getting out of hand. I had to restore his pathetic self-esteem quickly or I might be out of a job.

“Really,” I said comfortingly, “Without brave souls like you to do provide management assessment, we heroes would never find the truly career-enhancing jobs that bring us glory, gold, and girls.”

He seemed to brighten up a little when I mentioned the three g’s, but quickly sank even deeper into his bench. “But we fearless leaders never get anything except the gold. You know, Rog, I haven’t gone pillaging for years. Ahhh, those were the days. Now it’s just creep, creep, creep. Even the occasional poisoned goblet or knife-slitting has lost its thrill.”

A cheery idea flashed through my mind.

“Say, boss, would you like me to go rescue a princess for you this time? Maybe save a damsel from a dragon? If we set it up just right, you could get all the press and I could get the gold. What do you think?” That glory and girls stuff only goes so far and if it helped out the boss, well, a hero’s bank account is never what it’s cracked up to be.

The boss immediately perked up. “What?! Let you have more money? What kind of fool do you take me for? Hrmpf!”

Oh well, I suppose a grumpy boss is a happy boss. At least he didn’t seem depressed anymore.

“Enough nonsense,” he continued. “Let’s get down to business.

“This job will be a little tougher than most. The princess you are after this time is actually beautiful, not unlike your typical damsel.” He was right. Princesses are vastly overrated. Weakened gene pool from inbreeding, I suppose, but great scandal-ridden press. The real babes are always the damsels.

“Are you sure this one’s portrait wasn’t touched up? The last three princesses all had far longer noses and much bigger warts than advertised.”

“Nah, this one’s the real thing. Here’s a recent oil.”

He unrolled a small canvas and handed it to me. My boss was not exaggerating. Either the princess had a great press agent or she was indeed very beautiful. Thick, long black hair cascaded past slender shoulders. Large dark eyes gazed thoughtfully, eyes that a warrior could get lost in for a very long time. Her demure nose was perfectly shaped and no warts appeared at all.

The boss took a long swig from his beer as he watched me study the painting. After several enjoyable moments, I looked back up. He lowered his tankard and eased back.

“Now for your assignment. This is Princess Lalena of Javern. There is something you must know about this princess. In addition to being beautiful, she is also an outstanding ack…”

Obviously, the last word was not intended. Unfortunately, the boss fell forward, his masked face crashing into the still-moving food. Even worse, his beer spilled and soaked into his cloak. I reached forward to check his pulse. There was none. Grabbing the now-empty mug, I sniffed the rim. As I suspected, poison of the most devilish kind, working only on short, fat bald men. Someone knew of us, possibly knew my assignment.

Unfortunately, there was no time to worry. At that very moment I found myself suddenly surrounded by a half-dozen suspicious, heavily cowled figures. I say suspicious because only their eyes were visible beneath their hoods, and those were awfully beady.

Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to take on all six but, in this instance, they all had bright pointy swords directed at me.

I tried to be as cheerful as possible.

“Gentlemen! May I help you?”

“Ysspqjsls ssdjsssh wssmsdnfxhs!!!” shouted one of the creatures.

“I beg your pardon?”

My assailant slipped off its cowl. It was a black-scaled Torg. Good fighters with blunt faces and hairless bodies, but as light as princesses on the brains end.

“Oops! Sorry! I tend to forget about that cowl muffling effect,” apologized the lizard-like Torg. Before I thought to escape, he had his sword at my throat.

“Now, en garde! Prepare to die, rebel scum!”

One of the other hooded beings leaned over and whispered in the leader’s ear.

“Oh, is that what I was supposed to do!” he said to his associate. Then he turned to me, peeled off a glove and hurled it to the floor.

“You have insulted me for the last time, you slimy piece of worm-ridden filth! Get on your feet and arm yourself, for I will pierce your heart with my sw…”

“No, no, no!!!” cried his associate as he yanked off his cowl. It was a thin-faced, green-skinned Greshi. So, it was mercenaries that I faced, mere hired hands. “You’re just supposed to get him to come with us, not kill the poor bugger!”

“Didn’t you just tell me I’m supposed to duel him?”

“No, no, no!! I told you to apprehend him!”

“But you said pusa, duel!”

“No, no, no! I said pusat, apprehend. It’s this darned cowl that keeps getting in the way. Why do mercenaries have to wear these stupid robes every time we’re supposed to look mysterious? It’s not as if we’ve taken the assassin’s creed!”

“And I even threw down my glove on that filthy floor. I suppose I’ll have to send it to the cleaners!”

“Well, we oughta all get these darned cowls off our faces so we don’t end up skewering each other.”

“Thank goodness!” “Phew!” “It’s about time!” came the cries from the remaining mercenaries as they uncovered their heads as well, revealing a motley crew of various races. A more wretched group of scum and villainy I had never seen.

At that moment, I realized the chance for escape had arrived. I leaped to my feet, skillfully drawing my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, knocking over the table and saving my mug of beer all in one swift, suave motion. Well, maybe two or three fairly skilled, quick movements. All right, it was a whole series of disastrous, clumsy stumbles in which the table, myself, the mercenaries, my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, and the beer all ended up in one unbelievable tangled mess of sable cloaks and dun-colored robes.

I quickly attempted to extricate myself. Unfortunately, so did my would-be apprehenders. As did the table and the sword. Then there was the beer and the barely-moving dinner underfoot. The tangled mess became worse. But that’s what bouncers are for.

The Princess Problem, Part 2

Note: This is a six-part short story I wrote a very long time ago and recently rediscovered. I’ve polished it up a bit for your enjoyment. It’s set in the same world as my “White Magic” series and inspired by The Princess Bride with nods to Deep Purple and Star Wars, among others.

Agents, Editors, and other things that make me go “hmmm”

Yesterday I sent out query letter #15 for Blood of the Dragon. So far, four pleasant rejection emails. No problem there. They might be form letters, but the agents took the time to reply. I understand they get a boatload of unsolicited submissions. One said she receives 500+ such submissions every week, yet she still sent me a reply. Then there are those who send you nothing. Those drive me nuts. I don’t mind the form letter reply. I just want to receive a firm “no.”

I’m not an agent, and I don’t know what kind of administrative help each one has, but surely one can send a quick form email. I do this in my career as an appraiser, sending thank you letters to brokers who helped me. I keep the return letter as a notepad file and just replace the name. It’s not that hard. At least a few of those who don’t send an email at least post on their website a timeline as to when I can assume my query has been rejected. Still, if you’ve read my query and are not interested one week after I sent it to you, it’d sure be nice to know that right away rather than wait until the six- to eight-week period your website mentions is up!

My other rant is about my editors. Well, maybe not a rant, but a whine! LOL! I have two, not including my poor wife who has to listen to the latest couple of pages almost every day and never gets to hear an entire chapter at once. Why do my editors have to be so thorough? Yesterday, my content editor pointed out how my plot for my sequel needs to be drastically re-arranged, which will require quite a bit of rewriting. As I read her notes, my heart sank, knowing she was absolutely right, but groaning because it means hard work! In the end, however, the sequel (currently titled Heart of the Dragon) will be much better. I guess this is my backhanded thanks to Amelia. LOL!

As for other things, I’m realizing that I need to repeat my Whole 30 diet that I did last June. While my weightlifting program that I started in September has been successful, especially combined with my swimming, I haven’t been eating very well since Thanksgiving. Time to get serious again, as swimming championships are coming up in April. This is a great diet, but it’s very tough, especially the first week.

Finally, I’m curious if any reader of this blog would be interested in reading my book. I’m considering creating a private blog to post it in hopes of gaining feedback. I’m very good at handling constructive criticism (such as “your writing sucks and here’s why”), so if you’re interested, please PM me via facebook or posting in comments below.