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DON HUGHES – A HERO’S JOURNEY (no label) An Altoona native who now calls Pittsburgh home, Don Hughes released his first instrumental album in 2008, and followed it eight years later with an instrumental Christmas CD. Don attempts something more ambitious with his latest instrumental album undertaking, A Hero’s Journey, as he yearns to tell an entire story musically from start to end, without singing or lyrics. That story comprises nine of the album’s 13 tracks, as Don sonically constructs his musical narrative, complete with beginning, middle and ending; painting in musical pastels of symphonic, progressive rock and John Carpenter-informed movie soundtrack dynamics. Each track takes on a different mood and flavor, as Don varies the instrumentation between his changing keyboard textures, plus tones of guitars, woodwinds, drums and more. The opening piece, “Ordinary World,” blends layers of keys, synths, hard guitar edges and beats into a sturdy foundation from which to launch the ensuing adventure. “Adventure Calling” ramps up the tempo as its piano-like melody heightens anticipation for where this musical story is headed. Piano and acoustic guitar flavors establish curiosity and apprehension on the dark-toned “Accepting the Challenge?” before a hard-hitting homestretch suggests that the song title’s question has been answered. A tranquil, reflective vibe creates calm before the storm on “Finding an Old Friend,” before “The First Confrontation” charges into fast-firing, hard-hitting action. String flavors and piano give “Tragedy” a decidedly solemn mood swing, before woodwind and guitar touches give “Reflections” a new age texture. “Approaching Destiny” rebuilds tension and anticipation, leading to the climactic resolution to Don’s musical tale, “The Final Battle.” The remaining four tracks are completed works from some of Don’s other projects – two are original compositions, the ethereal “Point of Past Return” and the electronic-toned mini-journey “Lost in My Own Mind.” Don tips his hat to John Carpenter with his update of one of Carpenter’s best-known movie themes, “Halloween,” and the album closes with seasonal greetings via a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” It’s easy to realize Don’s evolution as a composer and arranger here, as his nine-song musical narrative establishes a cinematic ebb and flow, rising suspense, action and resolution. The beauty here is that no two listeners will derive the same exact experiences, and the story will manifest itself differently for each person who hears it. A Hero’s Journey successfully presents its musical narrative, and suggests that motion picture soundtracks and themes might be an arc in Don Hughes’ future. (The album can be obtained through Don’s website, www.donhughesmusic.com.)
ANTI-CORN LEAGUE – LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT (no label) To answer your immediate question: No, this group has nothing against corn – but derived their name, Anti-Corn League, from a 19th century British political movement, the Anti Corn Law League, that successfully protested and abolished taxes levied on imported cereal grains. (See, local music can be educational!) After releasing their 2008 debut CD and the twin CD’s Womb I and Womb II in 2014, co-founder Chris Kupchella and Nicole Eicher Kupchella relocated to Oregon for a few years, but recently returned to the Johnstown area and have released their latest album, Love It or Leave It. Both musicians play multiple instruments; Chris handles lead vocals while Nicole provides drumbeats and backing vocals. Anti-Corn League continues with their experimental brand of garage rock, mixing in elements of 1960s and 70s-era psychedelic rock through the album’s 11 tracks. We hear various layers and tones of keys and synthesizers underscoring edgy guitar rock, along with varying degrees of vocal and other distortion effects as Chris and Nicole explore new sonic terrain. At the center of these songs are catchy and intriguing pop-geared melodies, alluring chord progressions, and simply-stated lyrics centering on youthful memories and self-reflection. That youthful reminiscence appears on the album’s opening track, “Kids,” with its hard-driving garage punk; the group unleashes outright punk vinegar later on “It Ain’t Happenin’” and the Nicole-fronted “Summer Wastin.’” The group delivers uptempo, jangly rock and a play on words with “Read Me a Parabol,” and a bouncing, Beatlesque vibe on “Jack Kero Wacked.” They merge indie-rock dynamics with hook-laden melodies on such numbers as “Hangin’ in Defeat,” “Jingly Mint” and the retro-geared “My Brain to Be.” They conjure a darker indie-rock flavor on “So Slow, So Wonderful,” and a dreamier, flower-power tone on “White Lie.” The mix of garage rock and psychedelic flavorings keeps this album interesting from start to end. Chris and Nicole throw caution to the wind and freely explore sonic spaces on each song, sometimes riding their grooves to intense peaks. Self-recorded and produced, Love It or Leave It sounds sharp, abrupt and raw, and retains an honest, unpolished low-fi aesthetic. Anti-Corn League moves their freewheeling musical adventure forward with Love It or Leave It, expanding the range of their indie-rocking frontiers. (The album is available through Anti-Corn League’s Bandcamp page.)
BUGGSY ROCK – LOST KINGDOM III (B. Rock Records) Bloomsburg’s Buggsy Rock is a longtime musician and recording artist, and has appeared on stages with such groups as On The Rocks, Sadie and Toyz. He conceived the Lost Kingdom project in 2008, with the idea of blending the talents of multiple musicians from a variety of backgrounds to create (according to the CD liner notes) “a true musical colossus…capable of punching you in the gut, making you dance, and singing you a lullaby.” The third and latest album of this project, Lost Kingdom III taps the talents of 18 different musicians (including Buggsy Rock himself on vocals, guitars and bass) over the course of 14 tracks. Because of this variety of musicians, a number of musical styles are represented throughout the album, from classic-styled hard rock/metal to acoustic-geared folk-rock, and flavors in between. Buggsy and William Courson split lead singing duties through much of the album, both displaying strong and flexible voices. Two notable contributors also sing one song each – fellow Bloomsburg rocker and studio collaborator Jonah Whale, who sings and plays drums on the hard-driving “If I Don’t Have You” (which also features former Harpo members John Hahn on guitar and Jack Pyers on bass); and Harpo’s John Kistner delivers his trademark howl on the metal-geared “UFO.” Hybrid Ice guitarist Rusty Foulke contributes guitar licks on the hard-rocking “World’s On Fire.” Some other highlights include the 90s-leaning “Negative Waves,” which exudes a Stone Temple Pilots/Alice In Chains vibe, Mark Trapane’s classical guitarwork on the mild instrumental “Spanish Romance,” and acoustic and folk-leaning numbers such as the Led Zeppelin-toned “Wishing Well,” the William Courson-Colleen Matyas duet “Forever,” and the album-closing love song “Sherry.” The songs contain catchy melodies and relatable lyrics, and while diverse in flavors, work well together as a cohesive whole album. The contributing musicians all serve the songs well; the vocals are consistently strong from start to end, and the instrumental performances are well executed. Produced by Buggsy Rock and recorded in his own studio, this album sounds clean, balanced and full. Lost Kingdom III delivers a satisfying listen, as Buggsy Rock and his broad corps of musicians bring their talents together to create an overall solid rock album. (The CD can be obtained online music retailers and platforms.)