Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Answer's 'Solas' - Album Review

I think it is safe to say that, commercially speaking at least, Northern Ireland's The Answer have never fulfilled their early potential. Touring with AC/DC throughout 2008 and 2009 should have been the springboard for much greater things for the band, but that potential momentum never really seemed to materialise. When it comes to the band's creative potential however, it is clear that this has more than been fulfilled. Despite still being a club-level band, The Answer have gone from strength to strength when it comes to songwriting. The band's last album Raise a Little Hell (which I reviewed here), which is only 18 months or so old let us not forget, was one that introduced a few new sounds to the band's tried and tested blues rock formula. Elements of soul and funk crept into the band's sound, and made Raise a Little Hell one of the band's more experimental works to date. It was hard to predict how The Answer would follow this album up. 2011's Revival, also a fairly experimental album, was followed up by the back-to-basics heavy blues rock of 2013's New Horizon, so it would not have been unreasonable to expect the band to do something similar as a follow up to Raise a Little Hell. What actually happened was Solas, the band's sixth album, and one that I doubt many people can honestly claim they saw coming. Solas is easily the band's most diverse album yet, and is as a far cry from their raw, hard rocking 2006 debut album Rise as is realistically possible - and shows just how far The Answer have come in ten years. Whereas Rise, and much of the band's catalogue, is brash in-your-face heavy blues rock, Solas is more reserved, delicate, and warm. Screaming rock riffs are often replaced with more organic guitar melodies, and the whole thing is held together by frontman Cormac Neeson's expressive and comforting vocals. Solas has divided the band's fanbase, and I have to admit to not being overly keen on it initially too. The Answer I was expecting, and have loved for many years, was largely absent from the album. This could be a recipe for disaster, and lesser bands would have crumbled under the pressure to add the myriad of acoustic and folk elements seamlessly in their sound - but not The Answer. In hindsight, this move is probably not all that surprisingly. Previous ballads have had this sound to some extent, and the band's Northern Irish heritage has always been worn on their collective sleeves. Despite the overall tone of this album being more organic and 'quiet', there are still moments that rock like The Answer of old, they are just used more sparingly than previously. Many of the songs also feature the keyboard talents of Keith Weir (The Quireboys; Joe Elliot's Down 'n' Outz), which help to add to the warm, organic sound the band were pursuing. There will be many who will dismiss this album after a single listen, but those who are more open minded and like bands to evolve and take risks with their sound ought to find plenty to enjoy here.

The album's title track gets things underway with a slow, snaking bassline from Michael Waters and a plodding drum beat from James Heatley. The overall sound is very dry, but it works well. Initially, Paul Mahon's guitars are more in the background, with the bass guitar driving the song with it's riff and the guitars adding colour instead. The song has a real hypnotic quality, with the bassline really getting stuck in your head and Neeson's vocals swirling around perfectly. The section towards the end, were the word 'Solas' is repeated over and over is excellent, with the band providing an atmospheric backdrop, and Fiona O'Kane's subtle vocal harmonies really adding depth. A short guitar solo is the only real link to the band's past, but it still fits in well here. Beautiful World starts out in a similar fashion, as Mahon's strum away gently in the background in a way that is more reminiscent of modern indie music than blues rock, but it is Neeson that really dominates. His mournful, delicate vocals are a far cry from the hard rock screams he is known for and this is a revelation. This really suits him, and he almost sounds like a totally different man. The song starts to rock out somewhat as it progresses, with strident power chord riffing from Mahon that is backed up by a great rock bassline. Neeson does sound more like his older self here, with some wordless screams in the background, and a more powerful delivery during the heavier moments. This is still the new Answer however, despite the rockier sound, and it shows this more organic sound can also produce rock anthems. With a beautiful acoustic intro, Battle Cry is one of my favourites on the album. Neeson's opening vocal melodies are extremely catchy, and they remain this way throughout the song. Heatley's drumming and percussion throughout is really interesting, and helps to add a real rhythmic quality to the songs that fits in with Neeson's melodies. This is one of the songs that features Weir's keyboards, and his subtle organ playing really fills out the song and adds another layer to create depth. Some of the lyrics are sung in Gaelic too, which is different. This is a joyous and upbeat song that I am sure will go down well when played live. Untrue Colour has a rather sultry, laid back blues rock vibe, with a catchy dry-sounding guitar riff and some vocals from Neeson which are more like we have come to expect from him over the years. Acoustic guitar helps to bulk out the sound, and a simple but memorable chorus proves to be one of those moments that really sticks with you. The late 1960s guitar sound really helps this song, and overall this is a strong number. In This Land opens with what sounds like a mandolin riff, and the whole song has a great acoustic rock vibe throughout. Waters' bassline holds the song together, while the mandolin, acoustic guitars, and keyboards all swirl around to create a beautiful mix of sounds. Apart from the short one in the opening song, this is the first song on the album to have a proper guitar solo, which cuts through the mix with a great warm fuzzy tone. Thief of Light is a slow song, with a bit of a droning murky tone that is a great contrast to the bright acoustic riff that drives the song. Something about this song reminds me of church music for some reason, I think it is the large choral section that sits below most of the song which, although only subtly utilised, is very effective.

The opening part of Being Begotten actually reminds me a little bit of Pink Floyd around the time of The Wall, with a ominous guitar pattern and some cutting lead sections that emulate David Gilmour's famous tone somewhat. These little bursts of lead guitar continue throughout the song, and it ends up moving away from the Pink Floyd sound and moves towards an old blues style, with some deep vocals from Neeson and aching lead guitar lines. It never really properly gets going, but the mood it creates is great. Left Me Standing is a rare piece of bluesy hard rock in an album that attempts to forge a new path. This makes the song stand out, but it also makes you realise that the band can still really rock. The fast-paced chorus would have fit on any on any of the band's older albums, and the whole song just feels like the raw rock 'n' roll that dominated New Horizon. Those fans who are not keen on The Answer's new direction on this album should still enjoy this number, as it contains all the hallmarks that made the band popular in the first place, albeit with a slightly more organic overall feel. Demon Driven Man sounds like a song that could have been left over from the Raise a Little Hell sessions. In fact it sounds like a distant cousin to I Am What I Am, one of the best songs from that album, with a big funky bassline and a extremely catchy chorus. There is a bit more rock here than is found elsewhere on the album, and a great guitar solo is thrown in to boot. This is one of my favourite songs on the album, as I love the slightly funky side to The Answer's playing, something which I would like to see more of in the future! Real Life Dreamers is a bit of low-key blues rock with some great slide playing from Mahon and a subtle keyboard display from Weir that really enhances the sound of the song. O'Kane's vocals, which have been used throughout the album in a backing and harmony capacity, are given more prominence here and the song is actually a duet between her and Neeson. Their voices mix well together, and the vibe ends up taking on a bit of a country feel as the song goes on well lots of picked acoustic guitar melodies and the subtle slide playing. The album's closing number, Tunnel, is a great ballad that is initially based around acoustic guitar, but it soon builds up to take on more sounds. The wordless backing vocals during the chorus are particularly powerful, and help to really elevate that section. Once again, Waters' bass playing really stands out. His playing throughout this album is excellent, and it is often his grooves that drive the song rather than the more traditional guitar riffs the band usually opt for. It works well however, and his melodic playing really stands out and helps this more delicate sound The Answer have gone for here still have some weight. Not to be outdone, Mahon adds another great solo to the song, and ensures the album ends on a high. Overall, Solas is an album The Answer should be commended for. The new sound suits them down to the ground, and the songwriting throughout is very thoughtful and memorable. Bands need to change and evolve to stay fresh and, while I am sure they will return to the blues rock they built their career on soon, this is an Answer album that is just that - fresh! This the band's Led Zeppelin III, with a similar warm vibe and rootsy feel.

The album was released on 28th October 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the bands promotional video for Solas.

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