Sunday, 15 May 2016

Black Stone Cherry's 'Kentucky' - Album Review

Black Stone Cherry, once a raw and in-your-face southern rock revival band, have been undergoing a transformation (for better or worse) over the past five or so years. The band's self-titled debut album was a furious, but soulful, affair, and one that appealed to younger rock fans and older hands who probably saw bands like Blackfoot and Lynyrd Skynyrd at their prime. Black Stone Cherry is easily one of the best hard rock debut albums of recent times and many of the songs have become extremely well known. Two years later the band's second album, Folklore and Superstition, was released. While being smoother overall, and containing some ballads, the album still contains plenty of hard rocking anthems. I might even prefer Folklore and Superstition slightly to the band's debut as it contains some of my favourite songs the band have written. Unfortunately, for me, it started to go downhill somewhat from here. 2011's Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea is a very enjoyable album, but the shift away from the band's southern rock roots is hugely apparent. Instead, the album is a big slab of well-produced and written post-grunge-style hard rock, the type that fills American rock radio stations. While there is still some soul and groove to be heard throughout the album, it really pales in comparison to the first two. Reading between the lines, I think that Roadrunner Records was pushing the band towards this more commercial and generic sound as it is easier to market. It must have worked, as Black Stone Cherry are now an arena band - especially here in the UK - but they have lost some of what made them special in the first place (this is all conjecture by the way). Two years ago the band's fourth album, Magic Mountain (which I reviewed here), was released. This album initially seemed like a return to the band's original sound, but over time this album has becomes bland and uninteresting to me. It is definitely the band's weakest album in my opinion, despite containing a handful of excellent songs. Last year the band split with Roadrunner Records and signed with Mascot Records, a smaller rock label and announced they were recording their new album in the same studios were they recorded Black Stone Cherry. That album, called Kentucky after the band's home state, was released last month and it is easily the best thing the band have done since Folklore and Superstition. While there is still a big post-grunge influence in their sound, it has been fused much better with their original modern southern rock sound. This is an album that is packed full of soul and groove, and the songwriting is the strongest it has been in a while. It is a self-produced album too, and the involvement of outside songwriters is minimal this time around, so you can tell the band has revelled in this new-found creative control.

The fuzzy opening riff of The Way of the Future takes you right back to the band's early days, as is it packed full of the band's trademark groove. It is a methodical, mid-paced rocker with a really heavy sound as the guitars of Chris Robertson and Ben Wells mix well together to create a wall of sound. Some songs on this album are the closest the band have ever been to being a metal band, and it is definitely the band's heaviest work yet. Robertson's voice has a perfect growl throughout this song, and he unleashes his inner rock god during the song's soaring chorus. It is a great start to the album, and it makes you realise how commercial the band had become in recent years. Despite starting off with a grungy clean guitar line, single In Our Dreams soon takes off with another big dirty riff. It is a bit of a strange song, with Jon Lawhon's bass guitar driving things in the verses with a fat, heavy sound. The chorus, which is more reminiscent of the band's more recent work, is a little on the post-grunge side for my liking, but it still remains memorable. Those old school-fans clamouring for a return to the band's southern rock heritage will love Shakin' My Cage. A bluesy guitar intro soon gives way to a fantastic riff and a catchy guitar lead that sits above it. This is one of the best songs the band have written in years, and contains one of their best choruses over that intro riff and some fantastic drumming from John Fred Young. Robertson is a great guitarist as well as a great singer, and there is a strong solo in this song, with just enough wah effects to take you back to the heyday of southern rock. Those who like a good party tune will love Soul Machine, which in my opinion is the superior cousin to songs like Blame it on the Boom Boom. Opening with another stonking southern riff, the song is packed with plenty of groove as Young lays down a slightly funky drum beat as the guitars and bass dance above. If Shakin' My Cage has one of the best choruses on the album, the Soul Machine has the best. The slightly gospel-esque backing vocals help with the vibe, and the feel-good atmosphere is palpable. I think this song will become a live staple for years to come, and I can see it lighting up arenas around the world. One of the criticisms leveled against the band recently is the amount of ballads the band have included on albums in recent times. Long Ride however is an instantly memorable slower song with a strong emotional chorus and an even better guitar solo. Black Stone Cherry have always written good ballads, they were just becoming too common. This song comes in after four rockers, and offers a nice change of pace. Next up is a rocking cover of Edwin Starr's Mowtown classic War. Like all good covers, the band have managed to stamp their own identity on to it, which makes it stand out from the many previous covers of this song around. It fits well within the sound established so far on the album, but the horn section and strong vocals do make it stand out. Hangman is the first song on the album that does not really appeal to me. This sounds like a leftover from the Magic Mountain sessions, and is build around a clunky riff that never really takes off. The song is a bit too much like Nickelback for my tastes, without any of the southern charm of the band's best material. That being said however, it does contain an excellent guitar solo that is faster and more metal than Robertson's usual style.

Cheaper to Drink Alone, a co-write with famed Nashville songwriter Brandon Kinney, really gets the album back on track with a tongue-in-cheek feel-good vibe, and some really excellent guitar work. The song's bouncy riff and methodical pace is a good combination, as the talkbox guitar lead weaves it's way around Robertson's strong vocals. The song's chorus is the song's focus point, as it is really anthemic and catchy. It is one of those moments that instantly sticks in your head, and one of the things that stands out about the whole album on first listen. The song's guitar solo is also good, although it is Lawhon's bass lines underneath that actually catch my attention more! Rescue Me opens with some effects-heavy vocals, before exploding into what is probably the fastest riff on the album. It is another strong song, with a soaring chorus that deliberately slows the pace to good effect. The song has a slight 1980s feel to it, with overt melodies and plenty of vocal harmonies to create a big sound. Feelin' Fuzzy, which sounding dangerously close to the Magic Mountain sound again, does have some redeeming qualities. The guitar sound is appropriately fuzzy, with plenty of room of some understated leads. It is definitely not the album's strongest moment, but it has more about it than Hangman. Darkest Secret is a heavier song with a crushing riff and a groove-heavy verse. Unfortunately however, the song is let down by a poor chorus that really lacks any standout melodies. While the change of label seems to have driven a large percentage of the band's post-grunge influence away, there is still a bit of here clinging to life. The chorus of Darkest Secret is one of those moments, and it really does not fit with the southern groove of the song or album. Born to Die is better, and has quite an epic feel throughout. The verses are quite downbeat, with some excellent bass lines and some slightly strange guitar sounds. The chorus packs a punch however, with Robertson's soaring vocals capturing the attention. It sounds like there is some subtle hammond organ in the background too, but this is not confirmed in the album's sleeve notes. There is some great harmony lead guitar sections too, where both Robertson and Wells lock in well together. The album comes to an end with the acoustic ballad The Rambler, which is one of the band's best slow songs yet. It has a perfect southern/country sound, but not as contrived as some of the band's other acoustic songs. The lyrics are strong, and Robertson sings them with just the right amount of emotion and conviction. The delicate violin that plays in the background just adds something special to the song, and it makes it the perfect song to close a heavy album with. Overall, despite a few weak moments, Kentucky is Black Stone Cherry's best album for sometime. There are songs here that will no doubt become live staples for years to come, and it is reassuring to see the band back on the right track.

The album was released on 1st April 2016 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for In Our Dreams.

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