Thursday, 12 March 2015

Black Star Riders' 'The Killer Instinct' - Album Review

It hardly seems like any time has past since Black Star Riders got together. From the initial announcement at the end of 2012 that the majority of the current incarnation of Thin Lizzy would continue on as Black Star Riders, to the release of their well-received debut album All Hell Breaks Loose (you can see my review of that album here) in May 2013, and the plentiful touring the band has undertaken since - it is clear that Black Star Riders are here to stay. I am glad that this band has become a full-time job for all the musicians involved, as although the current version of Thin Lizzy is a great live machine, the pleasure of new material is always greater than any nostalgia for me. Since releasing All Hell Breaks Loose, the band have barely stopped working. In between touring, they have managed to record their second album The Killer Instinct, which was released last month. The Killer Instinct follows on from where All Hell Breaks Loose left off, and what we have is another excellent slab of hard rock that contains all the hallmarks of Thin Lizzy's past brought up-to-date with modern production and ideas. There has been a change in the band's ranks since then, with original bassist Marco Mendoza departing and Robbie Crane (Vince Neil; Ratt; Lynch Mob) stepping in. This chance in personnel is not really noticeable, as both men are great players and suit the groovy hard rock sound the band create. There has been another change between albums, and that is the album's producer. The first album was produced by Kevin Shirley, but this one has been produced by Nick Raskulinecz who has worked with Rush, Trivium, and Alice in Chains among others. Again however, this change has little affected the overall sound of the album, and the band have created a natural follow-up for All Hell Breaks Loose which capitalises on that album's success. The band's debut album reached number 25 on the Official UK Album Chart, but this album has gone further and reached the heights of number 13! The charts have been full of great rock albums recently, and I hope this trend continues! The newly-established songwriting partnership of frontman Ricky Warwick and guitarist Damon Johnson continues to thrive here, with founding member and long-time Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham happy to take more of a backseat. The guitar interplay between the two is great as always however, and is what makes the band so special.

The album's title track gets things underway and it is clear that the band were keen to be firing on all cylinders from the get-go and pick up where they left off. The dual lead guitar riff is right out of the Thin Lizzy rulebook, and Warwick's soulful Irish delivery is as strong as ever. I am glad that Black Star Riders is finally giving the man the spotlight he deserves, as The Almighty never really seemed to. A bass-heavy, upbeat verse gives way to a groovy chorus, with Jimmy DeGrasso's percussive drumming laying down a tight rhythm for Warwick's simple melodies. Johnson's guitar solo is really melodic, and shows what a great player he is too. Bullet Blues is a heavier, hard rock number with a crunching riff and a driving beat. The way Johnson and Gorham's guitars harmonise during the chorus is excellent, and shows what a great band can do with two lead guitarists that is not incessant soloing. The use of two excellent lead players was Thin Lizzy's raison d'ĂȘtre throughout the majority of their career, and it is nice to see that tradition being continued here. Finest Hour is a catchy little song with some lovely laid back lead guitar and a verse that is built around some gentle acoustic guitar chords. This jaunty song is one of the early highlights of the album and shows that the band do not have to rely on huge riffs and distorted guitars to always get the job done. The song's chorus is big enough to fill any stadium and is sure to become a live favourite for that reason. Soldierstown really showcases Warwick. It shows his knack for writing great story-telling lyrics, and his slightly punky vocal delivery that channels The Pogues on occasions - especially during Celtic rockers like this. The only thing that bothers me about this song is that the main lead guitar melody is a little too close to Thin Lizzy's Emerald for my liking, but Warwick's contributions ensure that the song becomes more than just a clone. That being said, the guitar work here is still excellent. Plenty of wah-drenched guitar leads are present, and the ever-present acoustic backing gives the song real depth. Charlie I Gotta Go is a bluesy treat with a really delicious guitar riff that is all the better for it's off-hand laziness. When the rhythm section join in after the first chorus it loses none of it's power, but is in fact reinforced by DeGrasso's punchy, simple beat. The guitar solo in this song is one of the album's best too, that really has the classic Thin Lizzy sound. You can almost imagine Brian Robertson or Gary Moore playing it, and the tight backing just enhances the sound more.

Blindsided is the album's only ballad and is built around a delicate acoustic guitar pattern that Warwick croons over as subtle keyboards back him up to create atmosphere. The band have not really done a proper ballad before, and it nice to have one on this album. Despite the fact that the whole band does join in, the acoustic guitar still becomes the dominant instrument through the verses, and Warwick's chorus melody really gets stuck in the brain. The song does get a little rocky about two thirds of the way through and builds up to a really excellent solo that plays with the already established melodies of the song and takes them in new directions. Through the Motions is a real riff-based number. The punchy riff that perfectly cuts across the tight drum beat brings back memories of the Bad Reputation-era of Thin Lizzy with an aggressive chorus featuring lots of bended notes to create a slightly oppressive sound. I do feel however that the chorus does not really fit with the rest of the song, as the slightly chaotic sound clashes with the pin-point accuracy of the verse riff. Sex, Guns & Gasoline is another real rocker. The verses have a feel of a heavier version of Charlie I Gotta Go, but it is during the chorus where the song really takes off. The anthemic vocal melody mixed with the tight riffing of Johnson and Gorham really works well, and the song's guitar solo is a explosion of classic rock with huge bended notes and plenty of wah. This is the sort of song that classic rock is all about, and shows that the genre is still alive and well in the 21st Century. Turn in Your Arms is the only song on the album that does not really connect with me. After all the other great songs here, this just comes off as second best in comparison. It has a very plodding feel to it that never really gets going, despite some nice riffs and vocal melodies in the chorus. In fact, there are some nice moments throughout the song, but it never seems to come together to create something that is wholly enjoyable. The only real misstep on what is a great album. You Little Liar is the album's closing number, and the longest song on the album by some way. At just over seven minutes long, there is a lot of music here to enjoy and it never overstays it's welcome. The verses are classic Thin Lizzy with harmonised guitars and the choruses are slower with a deliberate change of pace that enhances DeGrasso's powerful drumming and Warwick's soulful voice. There are plenty of excellent lead guitar breaks during the song, and all that ensures that the album ends strongly. Overall, The Killer Instinct is another great album from a group of musicians who are really making waves in the modern classic rock scene. I just hope that the nostalgia and money pull of Thin Lizzy does not scupper the band's long-term future, as I can see this one running and running!

The album was released 23rd February 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Killer Instinct.

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