Sunday, 17 April 2016

Spiritual Beggars' 'Sunrise to Sundown' - Album Review

It is amazing how genre labels can sometimes make you avoid a band that you would like if you actually heard them. Swedish supergroup Spiritual Beggars are one such band, and one I only discovered recently. Despite being a huge fan of founding member and guitarist Michael Amott (Carnage; Carcass; Candlemass; Arch Enemy) and being aware of Spiritual Beggars for some years, the 'stoner rock' tag really put me off listening to them. I am not a fan of stoner rock music, often finding it boring and one-paced, without any real melodies or interesting songwriting. However, a link to one of their new songs from their latest album Sunrise to Sundown came up as a recommendation on Youtube so I took the plunge. To my surprise, what I found I was listening to was a strong rock song, comparable to Mk. III Deep Purple, and so unlike what I usually consider stoner rock to be. I have since bought the Sunrise to Sundown album and listened to it a few times. I cannot compare it to any of the band's back catalogue, as this is my first full exposure to the band, but I have been impressed by this album. Spiritual Beggars, at least on this album, play hard rock influenced by the 1970s greats. There are lots of big guitar riffs, played with plenty of fuzzy distortion, and lots of rumbling hammond organ to bring everything together. This is  not original music by any means, but the songs are well-written, well-played, and are very enjoyable. Spiritual Beggars are a true supergroup too, featuring many well known musicians from the metal community. Joining Amott are: frontman Apollo Papathanasio (Firewind; Evil Masquerade); bassist Sharlee D'Angelo (Mercyful Fate; Witchery; Arch Enemy; The Night Flight Orchestra); keyboardist Per Wiberg (Opeth); and drummer Ludwig Witt (Shining; Grand Magus) who is the only person other than Amott to play on all of the band's albums. You can see from the band's the other members of Spiritual Beggars are (or have been) in, that the 'supergroup' label is actually valid in this instance, even if Spiritual Beggars was actually formed before many of these musicians found success elsewhere. The songs are mostly written by Amott or Wilberg (or in collaboration together) which is probably why the guitars and keyboards really dominate the mix. Papathanasio's vocals sometimes get a little buried, which is a criticism I have of the album's overall sound, but it is not a huge problem. The album was produced by Staffan Karlsson, who has worked as an engineer with many of the band's listed above. My complaint about the vocals aside, the production job is good and sounds very retro. The simple, booming drums have a great 1970s hollow sound to them, and the guitars have just the right amount of fuzz.

The riff that leads the album's title track is very typical of the style used throughout the rest of the album, and the song acts as a good gateway to the album. The song is full of 1970s classic rock swagger, with Wiberg's keyboards smothering everything else with that excellent, dense hammond organ sound. The song definitely has something of early Whitesnake about it, with Papathanasio sounding quite different to how he used to sound with Firewind. He has a rich voice that suits this sort of material well, and he leads the chorus section with ease. There is even a great keyboard solo, of the like rarely seen these days! Diamond Under Pressure, despite ripping off Deep Purple's Woman From Tokyo quite spectacularly, is the song I heard that persuaded me to buy this album. Again, Papathanasio's Coverdale-esque vocals stand out well, as the hammond organ growls around him. Another Deep Purple/Rainbow-type mid-section follows, with pulsing keyboard work, before Amott unleashes a great bluesy solo, something that is very different from his work with Arch Enemy. With a faster tempo, What Doesn't Kill You channels Uriah Heep (they are ticking off the classic rock influences here!) with plenty more big keyboard work and a fast guitar full of bluesy goodness. It is a very memorable song, with an excellent chorus full of neo-classical guitar motifs and some excellent vocals. Hard Road, the heaviest song yet and one of two written by drummer Witt, has a great doomy riff and is driven by some very hard hitting drumming. The keyboards growl around everything else, not taking the lead, but providing great backing to the pile driver guitar and bass combination as they rock out around the song's main riff.  This is a song that really grabs you from the outset and never lets go throughout. This is the sort of song that I imagine will sound huge live, and makes me hope for some Spiritual Beggars UK dates in the near future. Opening with a subtle bassline with some percussive drumming, Still Hunter sounds like a song that David Coverdale might have written around 1978 and then lost down the back of his chest of drawers. It is full of all the things that made that early period of Whitesnake so great; including a simple, yet powerful riff; and a seriously infectious chorus with silky-smooth vocals. Papathanasio was probably never 100% suited to Firewind's power metal, but he really shines here. I would love to hear him sing some old Whitesnake songs! No Man's Land slows things down, but this is no ballad as the sledgehammer main riff quickly explains. That being said, the song is more minimalist in places, with a very paired-back verse that lets Wiberg's keyboards take centre-stage, but the chorus really takes off with Papathanasio's howls and the sludgy guitar tones of Amott. A gentle, piano-led section later in the song helps to break up the non-stop riffing however, and works well to add some dynamics to the album overall. There is a lovely, effects-heavy guitar solo after it too that carries on in the same quieter tone, although it is not long before the song ramps up again, and Amott launches into another, more traditional rock solo.

I Turn to Stone opens with some prominent, round-the-kit drumming from Witt, as Papathanasio sings fairly gently over the top with a keyboard backing. The mix of the two sounds is strange, but it works quite well and the whole song has a slightly disjointed and psychedelic feel to it. Acoustic guitar often cuts through the dense mix to add another layer to proceedings, which adds to the late 1960s sound this song seems to emulate. There is a swirling, building instrumental section that takes up the latter half of the song, that has a Doors-like grind to it, and gives Wiberg and Amott both chance to fuse their instruments together in a wall-of-sound approach. Dark Light Child gets back to a more standard song structure, although it fails to have the impact of the early part of the album. That being said, the song's chorus is still very memorable, with some prominent vocal melodies. Amott's guitar solo is one of the album's best too, with lots of shredding and it breaks away from the bluesy mold that many others here follow. Lonely Freedom has a really excellent guitar riff to it, that makes it mark through solid groove rather than raw power. It has a very calculated feel to it, but works in song's favour as the riff dominates. The song sits back on the established groove for its duration, with the bass guitar constantly providing a slightly dancy feel. The vocals are not that interesting here, but the song makes up for it with interesting instrumentation, and another stellar guitar solo. It is quite a long solo, and uses all of Amott's skills and styles. Penultimate number You've Been Fooled is probably the album's weakest song, as it contains none of the melodies and memorable moments that the majority of the rest of the album has. The chorus is very underwhelming, and the riffing is generally less-inspired than the other songs found here. After that sole weakness, the album comes to and end with Southern Star, which brings the quality back again. The second song written by Witt, the song features prominent piano rhythms and a meaty bassline that weaves around Wiberg's striking chords. It has a slightly laboured feel, but that works in the song's favour, especially during the effects-heavy lead guitar sections and the stomping chorus that Papathanasio nails. It is a good end to an album that is very strong and full of highlights. Overall, Sunrise to Sundown is an impressive piece of work. Spiritual Beggars clearly wears their influences on their sleeve, but this ends up working in the band's favour. Fans of 1970s classic rock are sure to find a lot to love here, and the songwriting is generally of a high standard.

The album was released on 18th March 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Diamond Under Pressure.

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