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Sometimes hard rock is in vogue, sometimes it's not--but thus far, neither the music industry nor the fickle public has been able to kill it entirely. Even during periods when it was deemed thoroughly uncool, the approach has survived and occasionally even flourished, especially in places somewhat removed from the musical mainstream. Like, for instance, Denver, Colorado.

Just ask Mike McPherson, co-owner of Denver-based NEH Records. With little fanfare and even less attention from area tastemakers, NEH has expanded greatly since its 1994 founding. The firm now boasts a catalogue of around a dozen CDs, a first-rate studio that's moving to a new, larger location in Northglenn later this year, and a series of international distribution deals. "We're one of the most successful labels in Colorado, if not the most successful label," McPherson says. "But nobody knows it."

Why not? Because the recordings issued by NEH strongly recall the sound of Journey, Styx and other purveyors of what non-believers have tagged corporate rock. Not surprisingly, McPherson dislikes the descriptive. "'Corporate rock' has a derisive feel to me," he says. "To me, 'melodic rock' is a better term. And even though it hasn't been that popular in the U.S. for a while, people in Europe, Japan and Australia are eating it up."

On the surface, McPherson seems to be an unlikely music mogul. He makes his living as a business development manager for a local company, Ball Aerospace. "I've worked on the space shuttle and a lot of different NASA jobs over the years," he says. But he's also played rock and roll for twenty years (he calls it "a serious hobby"), and he's always dreamed of a career in the music industry. His chance came when he met Bob Barth, best known in hard-rock circles as the guitarist for Axe. The band, which was founded in 1977, released several albums on Atlantic Records and earned considerable airplay for the single "Rock and Roll Party in the Streets." However, an early-Eighties car crash that killed one member and injured Barth brought the group to a temporary end. Afterward, Barth played with several other collectives, including Blackfoot, and became a sought-after session musician. But he never forgot Axe, and when he moved to Denver in 1994, he decided to bring the surviving members of the combo together again for a reunion album and tour. He also started working with a local outfit, Caught in the Act--and as these projects came closer to fruition, he decided that he needed a company to market them. Soon thereafter, NEH was born.

In 1994, NEH bowed with Caught in the Act's debut, Relapse of Reason. The disc was virtually ignored stateside, but it sold around 30,000 copies in Japan and a like number in Europe. The group's followup, 1997's Heat of Emotion, did just as well, and so, too, did 1996's Five, the first new album by Axe in more than a decade. A virtual blueprint of the NEH approach, Five sports an ultra-polished guitar sound, prototypical power ballads and melodramatic subject matter epitomized by titles like "Heroes and Legends." Both this recording and a subsequent Axe anthology, last year's Twenty Years From Home, are filled with the kind of music that most critics (including this one) despise, but they're so slick and professional that their popularity isn't all that surprising. Anyone who once loved the songs of so-called hair bands will be won over before the first riff has finished screaming.

McPherson, who put out a self-titled disc under his own name in 1996, believes other listeners would be entranced, too, if only they got the chance. But, he notes, "this kind of music fell off when the Seattle sound came along and took over. And since then, bands have done other things, because grunge is selling better, and because melodic rock and AOR-type music is harder to make. You have to pay a lot of attention to detail."

This claim is borne out by One, recorded by Caught in the Act under its new moniker, Guild of Ages. (A copyright dispute forced the name change.) The project--which has been available overseas for a while now but just came out in America earlier this month--is a generous one: In addition to a studio CD, it includes a bonus disc titled Live Over Germany that was cut during a 1997 tour. But even the in-concert material sounds carefully formulated: Guilders Danny Martinez, Antz Trujillo, Steve Stuntz and Jim Lostetter work overtime to make certain that every Seventies/Eighties rock button is pushed, and pushed again. Lyrically, too, the numbers maintain the balance between sensitivity and macho bluster that made the genre popular with both women and men during its heyday. For proof, check "River of Dreams," which mates lovelorn words ("I can feel your power/Love that burns like fire") with an arrangement that builds slowly to a high-pitched climax of the sort in which the Scorpions once specialized.

This tack sounds like commercial suicide, but it's not. Caught in the Act/Guild of Ages plays around 300 dates a year and regularly brings sizable crowds into venues such as the Iliff Park Saloon. Moreover, One has started out of the gates quickly as a result of NEH's agreements with MTM Music in Europe and Zero Records in Japan. The platter is also selling briskly on NEH's Web site (www.nehrecords.com), as are albums by a handful of MTM and Zero artists such as Sahara Snow, led by--I kid you not--Rick Springfield. McPherson expects equally large things from upcoming albums by Riot Act and Bodragaz, two Denver bands recently inked to NEH. "There's a lot of people out there who still love this music--so many that I think major labels will start to notice again," he says. "When we start selling 100,000 copies per release, it'll get their attention."

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