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Rival Sons - Head Down (Album Review)

Tuesday, 18 September 2012 Written by Simon Ramsay
Rival Sons - Head Down (Album Review)

Are you angered by shallow manufactured music and the style over substance culture feeding it? Do you detest overly preened puppets peddling the same soulless lyrical clichés? Does the age of auto tune make you want to go all Van Gogh on your ears? If you answered those questions with a resounding 'hell yeah' then prepare to meet your new favourite band. Los Angeles quartet Rival Sons are a seventies soaked firecracker of explosive rock and roll attitude alight with the spirit and passion of untameable blues. Their music's unconcerned with image and sales as they aim “to give people the rock and roll they deserve by keeping it honest, visceral, and dangerous”. With the release of 'Head Down' they've more than fulfilled that pledge.

ImageIt's been a whirlwind few years for the Californian outfit, releasing their digital début 'Before The Fire' in 2009, followed by last year's 'Pressure And Time' album and their first headline tour of Europe. This saw them named ‘Best New Band’ by Planet Rock radio, whilst ‘Pressure and Time’ was voted No.2 Album of 2011 by Classic Rock Magazine. However, some critics have dismissed them as nothing more than Led Zeppelin imitators and shameless seventies revisionists. Singer Jay Buchanan believes “It’s asking a lot of people not to do that and it’s our burden to transcend it.” In February 2012 they re-teamed with producer Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings) in Nashville to silence the doubters on album number three.

There's been a noticeable evolution since 'Pressure And Time'. Where that was a ten song, half hour tempest of youthful testosterone and unrelenting frustration 'Head Down' is an older, wiser brother. The same primal sensibilities are in tact, delivered via longer compositions, more intricate instrumental interplay and a richer palette of sounds. This is immediately evident as 'Keep On Swinging' comes striding out the speakers like a plucky prize fighter shooting for the title. It's a pugilistic slab of spine tingling cool as Scott Holiday's sizzling riff strides atop a swaggering groove that ducks, weaves and lands a series of deadly blows courtesy of Ray Everhart's funky bass leanings and Mike Miley's rattling drums, jabbing their way through the verses before turning southpaw for a knock out chorus. All capped off by Jay Buchanan's heavyweight vocals, like a less screechy Robert Plant with a ballsy raw power, sky-scraping soulful tonality and deliciously unpredictable nuances.



Following such a cracking start 'Wild Animal' is a disappointing momentum killer as Buchanan sings in a semi whispered style reminiscent of The Stone Roses Ian Brown. Whilst an admirable experiment it's the album's one duff track, with a seductive mellow ambience ruined by an anaemic chorus that meanders like a castrated canine. Normal service resumes with thundering intent on 'You Want To', showcasing a mesmerising Buchanan performance, howling and hollering like Paul Rodgers on steroids between fuzzy bursts of volatile Jimmy Page riffage. The song quietens to a pleading serenade that's a classy call and response passage between Buchanan's cooing and Holiday's gentle bluesy fills, before amping up the voltage for a bludgeoning finish. Wings are then stretched on 'Until The Sun Comes', the closest they'll get to writing a west coast pop song. Sung in the same register as 'Wild Animal' it succeeds where that track failed by having a hip shaking rhythmic pulse and swaying arms aloft chorus that's a dreamy dancefloor delight.

Rival Sons are at their incendiary best on 'Run From Revelation', an astonishing thundercrack of primitive bluesy wailing as the pained vocal - longing to return to a time when ignorance was bliss - screams 'I want to do it again' with heaven shaking desperation. Meanwhile, Holiday channels Jeff Beck with a forlorn slide motif and goes all Master Page for an expressive solo section that's 'Whole Lotta Love' phrasing with 'Black Dog' harmonies. 'Jordan' dials down the decibels, painting a poignant picture with subtle brush strokes and delicate atmospherics. It's a beautifully bittersweet lament with chiming guitars, swaying gospel vocals and a tender croon from Buchanan as he sings about letting a loved one die whilst celebrating their spiritual journey to the next life.

'All The Way' picks up the pace, trotting along on a helium healed bass line with chirpy hands claps that's vintage Motown, whilst Buchanan does his best Otis Redding with a cheeky spoken verse about childhood, discovering music and making a relationship work when hindered by whiskey! 'The Heist' then spins a storming yarn about a family man planning an eventually failed robbery over the backdrop of choppy rhythms and a sparkling sixties chorus, with soulful singing akin to Scott Walker fronting The Doors in a seedy Tin Pan Alley night club.

A three song suite about the slaughter of Native Americans and the pillaging of their lands arrives to make this record truly special. A short acoustic instrumental called 'Nava' sets a poetic scene before the darkly dramatic onslaught of 'Manifest Destiny Pt 1', an eight minute tour de force fusing Zeppelin's widescreen epics with Jim Morrison's shamanic spirituality. An echoing guitar gives an ominous sense of foreboding until the band unleashes a seething 'Kashmir' powered riff surrounded by a torrent of smashing crashing drum blasts to soundtrack the ethnic cleansing narrative. Hautning verses find an ethereal falsetto weeping about soldiers destroying an Indian camp as Buchanan mournfully states 'we're dealing with Godless men'. Holiday then shines throughout a spectacular four minute solo, journeying through compassionate melodic phrases, accelerated arpeggios and psychedelic wah wah freakouts. It's stunningly cinematic from start to finish. 'Manifest Destiny Pt 2' concludes the trilogy as the Indians respond to the massacre, driven by screaming harmonica and the promise that 'we're taking lives at dawn...doing it for the dead'. After that excitement 'True' draws the album to a soothing close, as a folky Tim Buckley romance about finding your soulmate, raising a family and growing old together slowly turns out the lights.

'Head Down' was made old school, with everything written, recorded and mixed in the studio in 20 days. Scott Holiday claims “This is the simplest way to not cheat ourselves or the listener. Rock and Roll can’t be over-thought, and if it is, it loses it’s immediacy and instinct... it needs to be a knife fight, not a knife dance.” The result is an album of thrillingly unbleached, powerfully pure rock and roll. It won't win over doubters as they're still singing from the same hymn sheet as Zeppelin, Free etc. But who cares? Only one thing matters when it comes to music; is it good or bad? Good music comes from quality songs, skilled musicianship and a passionate no bullshit delivery. On that count Rival Sons have made a superb record that shouldn't be tagged as merely retro, because the influences they're tapping into were born from the same trials and tribulations that still exist today. Not to mention few styles of contemporary music don't owe a debt of gratitude to the blues. With that in mind, 'Head Down' is here – it's now - it's timeless – it's fantastic.

'Head Down' is available now. Rival Sons tour the UK later this month.

Rival Sons UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri September 21st 2012 - Concorde 2, Brighton
Sat September 22nd 2012 - Thekla, Bristol
Sun September 23rd 2012 - Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Nottingham
Mon September 24th 2012 - Corporation, Sheffield
Wed September 26th 2012 - O2 Academy Newcastle, Newcastle
Thu September 27th 2012 - Glasgow Garage, Glasgow
Fri September 28th 2012 - HMV Ritz, Manchester
Sat September 29th 2012 - Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton
Mon October 1st 2012 - Electric Ballroom, London

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