There’s been a lot of talk recently about the imminent death of stadium-sized hard rock, with all the giants of the genre nearing retirement and a lack of younger bands having the fan base, or even the chops to fill their expensive motorcycle boots. Black Stone Cherry seem to be inching in that general direction and our very own Temperance Movement certainly seem to built up an impressive head of steam, but in terms of critical acclaim neither can match California’s Rival Sons. Everyone who has heard their previous two albums seems to have fallen for their soulful charms, and rightly so – “Pressure and Time” and “Head Down” are two of the greatest hard rock records released in the past decade, possibly longer. And so there is considerable expectation hanging around the release of “The Great Western Valkyrie” (released June 9th), both from Earache Records and from rabid fans of the band, eager for new anthems. There is a feeling of anticipation and hope for a coronation of our new kings, the band guaranteeing the safety of rock’s lineage.
What we actually get from “The Great Western Valkyrie” is not a triumphant musical march to victory but rather a partial retreat to the safety of rock’s ancestral home. ‘Electric Man’ comes bustling out the speakers with enormous confidence but it is the borrowed swagger of decades of musical peers who have got by on amplification and attitude, all flash and no class. The song, if you can call it that, is a super amplified blues jam, with Jay Buchanan tossing out a few cliches about ‘sugar shacks’ and is a couple of ‘baby, baby’s’ away from Ian Astbury gonzo metal territory. The band are known for working live and fast in the studio but here it sounds like they have set off without a plan.
‘Good Luck’ has a nagging rhythm and blues tinged chorus but little else, the band seeming intent on racing to it as soon as possible. The songs only diversion is the chorus moving into a shimmy, any attempt of adding any more interesting verses to the song abandoned in an effort to pummel you with it’s undeniably catchy refrain.
‘Secret’ may be the heaviest song Rival Sons have ever recorded – a proto-metal intro leads into an incredible blues howl by Buchanan who’s lung-busting power is scarily impressive, as is the drumming of Michael Miley, and the song is all about Miley trying to batter you into submission whilst Buchanan tries to lift you skywards. This is hair raising stuff without ever matching the bands best songs for style or taste.
‘Play The Fool’ has an explosive, fuzzy blues riff over a Motown groove and most obviously signals guitarist Scott Holiday’s change of tack for this record. Previously his playing has reminded me of a mix between the feel of Joe Perry with the pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix and Tom Morello. Here Holiday sounds almost exclusively like Jimmy Page. That opening track sounded like a Led Zeppelin outtake and now you realise a quote on the press release by Jay Buchanan was very telling – “We have one of the greatest rock’n’roll drummers and guitarists on the planet, so lets be a straight up rock’n’roll band”…and that rock’n’roll band is Led Zeppelin.
Now, nobody’s ever screwed their career up by sounding like Led Zeppelin, but when Rival Sons were already a thrilling outfit in their own right I really don’t know why they felt the need to fall back behind Page & Plant‘s bell bottoms. To me a lot of this record, especially the first few numbers, sound lazy and uninspired. Maybe they ran out of decent song ideas because musically it’s a ferocious record, but the songs just aren’t a match for numbers like ‘Run From Revelation’ or ‘Face of Light’.
Having said that, track four is the one truly great moment on the album, the appropriately named ‘Good Things’. Soulful, slinky and contemplative, ‘Good Things’ is a proper Rival Sons song with proper lyrics, full of the sort of character we’ve come to expect from them.
You’ve probably heard the single ‘Open My Eyes’ which comes in on another Bonzo-ish beat from Miley and actually has a lovely reggae-tinged breakdown in between the blues rock banshee stylings of Buchanan. And that chorus is fiendishly addictive so despite not establishing it as a great song it is certainly an effective one.
A noticeable Walker Brothers influence, last seen on ‘The Heist’, resurfaces on ‘Rich and the Poor’ and also a hint at a folk rock side. This song could be easily transformed into an acoustic lament of equal power to the original which is full of pomp and bombast. (It completes a trio of better songs on the album which makes you want to go back and reconsider the opening numbers, but so far for me they continue to frustrate).
Jumping forward slightly, the ballad ‘Where I’ve Been’ emerges as the only song apart from ‘Good Things’ to really stand shoulder to shoulder with tracks from the past two albums. A bittersweet tale of a love affair beset by difficulties rising from the lady’s past it reminds me of Jeff Buckley – Jay Buchanan‘s voice again an emotive force full of tenderness and raw power, with beautifully subtly keys augmenting the mood. It’s an epic!
Despite the prevailing air of seat-of-the-pants live performance, two tracks near the end of the album see the band pull out all the stops in the studio to create strange and ethereal moods. ‘Belle Star’ is a fever dream tale of a bandit queen’s demise, punctuated with another Jimmy Page-apeing guitar solo. It has a haunting quality but never grips in quite the way the song intends. The same is true in spades of closer ‘Destination on Course’ – a watery, psychedelic sprawl which is indebted to ‘No Quarter’ but lacks it’s strange intensity. There is a heavenly choir, woozy breakdowns and dissonant keys which take it towards some sort of American Gothic prog rock hybrid, but again it just misses the mark, and I find my attention has drifted by the end.
Rival Sons are fantastically talented musicians and who knows, maybe their time has come – there are certainly a lot of people willing them towards stardom. This album though is not a career highlight, I hope that there are many more to come.