Don't Look Back
Third Stage

Boston (Epic ‘76) Rating: A+
This flawless sounding debut album still sounds great even though FM radio has beaten these songs to death over the years. In fact, most of these songs are so familiar that Boston now sounds more like a “greatest hits” album than an album proper, making their actual Greatest Hits album an exercise in redundancy. Boston was the brainchild of engineering wizard/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Tom Scholz, but Barry Goudreau (guitar), Fran Sheehan (bass), and John “Sib” Hashian (drums) were also fine players, while Brad Delp’s freakishly powerful voice adds a majestic quality to the band’s music, especially when his multi-tracked harmonies kick in. Boston contains all kinds of fantastic futuristic sounds and gloriously melodic (and endlessly layered) guitar harmonies, and the album’s positive energy, albeit with a dose of realism (“I’ve got to keep on chasing that dream, though I might never find it”), flew directly in the face of the nihilistic punk movement that soon followed. Unsurprisingly, punk loving rock scribes have never really given this album its due; far from the “guilty pleasure” that most critics backhandedly concede this album as being, to me this has always been nothing less than one of the greatest debut albums of all-time. After all, it features great rockers such as “Piece Of Mind,” “Rock n’ Roll Band,” and “Something About You,” the latter of which culminates with an incredible climax. Elsewhere, “Hitch A Ride” showed that Boston could strip down their sound with a wonderfully evocative ballad (though some beautifully soaring guitar harmonies close it out), and even the album’s weakest song, “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” presents a sexy and singable chorus. On the more experimental front, “Smokin’” does just that (smokes), at least before and after its atmospheric keyboard bridge, while “Foreplay/Long Time” begins as a dazzlingly explosive and atmospheric jazz-rock jam before settling into a more conventionally catchy and quite excellent pop rock epic. Of course, the album’s piece-de-resistance is the magnificent “More Than A Feeling,” whose massive wall of sound, unforgettable riffs, and piercing vocals can still thrill and chill (quite literally, as Delp's vocals rarely fail to give me goosebumps) all these years later. Sure, some of these songs share similar qualities, but on Boston (the album) Boston (the band) simultaneously invented and perfected a much-copied “classic rock” blueprint.

Don’t Look Back (Epic ‘78) Rating: A-
This album was a virtual repeat of the debut’s formula, albeit with less consistent and inspired results. Actually, the first half is mostly great but side two suffers by comparison, which is a bit disappointing given that the album only runs for a scant 34 minutes. Still, the good stuff here is really good; certainly the title track is an acknowledged classic, being both moody and melodic yet rocking at the same time, led as always by their wonderfully harmonized guitar parts and Delp's masterfully multi-tracked vocals. "The Journey" is merely a short (1:46) instrumental interlude, but at least its wailing guitars are appropriately atmospheric and futuristic sounding, with keyboards helping out, as per usual. The song it segues into, "It's Easy," is a bit of a rehash (I'm thinking "Piece Of Mind") but it's still quite good, with a gorgeous, at times quite sorrowful guitar tone accompanying a catchy, singable chorus. A far more atypical track is the excellent "A Man I'll Never Be," an epic, extremely affecting "power ballad" that’s highlighted by Delp's powerful vocals and Scholz's ever-present layering of luminous guitars. "Feelin' Satisfied" may be slightly cheesy (i.e. "you know it's now or never take a chance on rock n' roll"), but this fun party anthem is still terrific, in large part due to its fantastic fadeout ending (like Guns n' Roses and Led Zeppelin, Boston really knows how to end a song), with spine-tingling vocal acrobatics from Delp. Alas, the rest of the album doesn’t maintain such high standards, with the weakest entry being “Party,” a formulaic boogie number that’s similar to last album’s superior “Smokin’.” Much better is "Used To Bad News," a melodic, melancholic soft rocker that exemplifies this album’s more downcast, thoughtful nature than what was generally offered up on the debut. Though not a highlight, "Don't Be Afraid" then closes things out with a solid, energetic effort that’s notable for some nifty guitar heroics, a smoothly layered sound (as always), and Delp being as pleasantly personable as ever. It later came to light that this album was rush released by Epic in order to cash in on the popularity of the debut, and Scholz the perfectionist was unsatisfied with the record's results (I'm sure that he would've liked to have further fleshed out side two, at the very least). Still, though the album's hasty assemblage makes it seem somewhat unfinished, the album’s best songs are comparable to those on the debut, though Don’t Look Back will always stand in the imposing shadow of its more fully formed predecessor.

Third Stage (MCA ‘86) Rating: B-
Scholz took an astounding eight years trying to nail down album number three, the appropriately titled Third Stage. Despite being a #1 U.S. album that spawned several hit singles, it was a comparatively disappointing effort that lacked the energy and excitement of their debut, which will always remain the band’s definitive statement. That said, the songs that received radio airplay ("Amanda," "We're Ready," "Cool The Engines," "Can'tcha Say/Still In Love," "Hollyann") were predictably melodic and tuneful, and there's no denying that the classic Boston sound is very much intact. The problems lie in the limp ballad "To Be A Man," not one but two pointless instrumental interludes a la (the much better) "The Journey," and a general lack of top-flight rockers on what is a ballad-heavy collection. I mean, "Cool The Engines" is a solid enough riff rocker that it stands out here, but it would've been one of the lesser tracks on the first two albums. And given that "My Destination" shares the same basic melody as "Amanda" (the band's lone #1 hit), we're talking about seven actual new songs after eight long years, one of which is pretty lame (though I definitely like the other song not yet mentioned, "I Think I Like It"), which isn't much bang for your buck now, is it? Then again, Third Stage is to me the last Boston album that really mattered, certainly from a commercial standpoint, as 1994's ill-timed Walk On, released at the height of grunge, failed to make much of an impact. It certainly didn’t help that the album was recorded without Delp (the rest of the original band had been jettisoned before Third Stage); though his replacement Fran Cosmo does a solid imitation, Delp is such a great singer and is such a key component of the Boston sound that it doesn’t fully seem like a Boston album without him. That said, I actually think that the album is underrated and has definite highlights worth seeking out, such as “I Need Your Love,” “Surrender To Me,” and the 12-minute title track medley. Like many people I lost interest in Boston at that point so I can't comment on the subsequent albums, but I was saddened to hear about the suicide death of Delp (who did sing on 2002's Corporate America) in 2007. As for Scholz, who has been at odds with various ex-band members over the years, it's impossible to call an MIT grad who invented the Rockman guitar amplifier an underachiever, but as a musician this unlikeliest of rock stars certainly promised more than he subsequently delivered after such an outstanding start to his career. P.S. Fans of Boston would do well to track down the self-titled 1980 album from Barry Goudreau, which features Delp, Cosmo, and original drummer Sib Hashian. In many ways this strong album is like a long lost Boston album, only without Scholz of course (and in fact this album was the beginning of the bad blood between Scholz and Goudreau).

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