Monday, 27 February 2017

Black Star Riders' 'Heavy Fire' - Album Review

It is rare that a new rock band comes along in the 21st Century and makes an impact quite like Black Star Riders have. Since releasing their debut album All Hell Breaks Loose (which I reviewed here) in 2013, the band have gone from strength to strength and are now certainly one of the most talked-about modern hard rock bands. In fairness, Black Star Riders certainly had a head start. The band are a supergroup in the truest sense of the term, and were formed out of the ashes of a very successful Thin Lizzy reunion. Frontman Ricky Warwick and guitarists Scott Gorham and Damon Johnson wanted to write music together, but were wary of doing so under the Thin Lizzy banner. Black Star Riders was the result of this wish to write new music, and over the course of the past few years the band has been embraced with open arms by the rock community. Warwick, Gorham, and Johnson; joined by original drummer Jimmy DeGrasso and long-time bassist Robbie Crane; have really made their mark. The band's second album, The Killer Instinct (which I reviewed here), was released in 2015 and only helped to cement the band's reputation. The year was a successful one too, with plenty of touring. 2015 ended with the band supporting Whitesnake and Def Leppard on a large run of UK shows, ensuring the year went out on a high. 2016 was an uncharacteristically quiet year for Black Star Riders, but the down time was spent wisely working on what was to become their third album. This latest opus, titled Heavy Fire, was released earlier this month and has impressed the band's fanbase in the same way that the previous two records did. As with their previous two albums also, Heavy Fire received some mainstream attention and managed to reach number 6 in the Official UK Album Chart. All Hell Breaks Loose made it into the top 30, and The Killer Instinct made it into the top 20, so for Heavy Fire to reach the top 10 is an excellent achievement for the band and shows that rock is still very much alive and well in the UK. Granted, the charts are nowhere near as important or representative of the UK public's music consumption habits as they once were, but is still a great PR coup to get a high placing! Following the success of The Killer Instinct, the band once again worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz at his studio in Nashville to record Heavy Fire. Soundwise, Heavy Fire is very similar to the previous two albums and shows that the Warwick/Johnson writing partnership is as fruitful as it has been over the past few years. Despite the familiar sound, there are a few new ideas thrown in here and there. A few tracks feature female backing vocals, which adds a gospel/soul element to the band's patented twin-guitar hard rock sound, and this helps to ensure the songs here sound fresh while still staying true to the sound the band have established over the previous two albums.

The album wastes no time in setting out it's stall with the muscular title track, complete with a heavy mid-paced riff and a driving verse propelled along by a raw-sounding drum beat. Warwick's voice, that sits somewhere between the storytelling tones of Phil Lynott and the rough edge of Bruce Springsteen, really excels in environments such this this and, although the song's lyrics and melodies are sometimes a bit of a mouthful, shines. The song eschews traditional structure, with one chorus-type section coming toward the middle with the rest of the song being made up of various riff-driven parts with lots of excellent slide guitar. When the Night Comes In is more of a traditional Black Star Riders rocker, and the first of two songs to feature the vocal talents of Wendy Moten, Gale Mayes, and Drea Rhenee. This is a very vocally-driven song, without much of the twin-lead guitar style that the band's sound is founded on, and is more reminiscent of the slightly punky singer-songwriter style found on Warwick's recent solo efforts. The female backing vocals really help to add a certain degree of class to the chorus, and in turn help this album to stand out from the previous two recorded by the band. The simplicity of the song is sure to make it a future live favourite, and it is hard to see it leaving the band's setlists any time soon. Dancing with the Wrong Girl, the first Black Star Riders to be co-written by Crane, is the first on the album to really hark back to the classic Thin Lizzy sound. The understated, fuzzy power chord riffs, and the short bursts of wah-drenched lead guitars scream that band's 1970s heyday, and Crane's prominent bassline is one Lynott himself would have been proud of. As with Thin Lizzy too the song is never in-your-face heavy, but content to sit back on a groove and just let the rhythms and riffs do the heavy lifting. There is also a short, but extremely sweet, dual-guitar solo which show that Gorham and Johnson are a guitar pairing to be reckoned with. Who Rides the Tiger is a faster, heavier song with more of Warwick's punky influences thrown in. A strong call-and-response chorus, drenched in subtle keyboard melodies, is the song's centrepiece; but strong riffs and bouncy rhythms contribute to the song's overall power. More than anything else however, this is a real guitarists dream with plenty of chances for both Gorham and Johnson to shine with flashy lead breaks. There is a relatively lengthy instrumental mid-section which sees the first real shredding of the album, which is a change from the more calculated soloing seen elsewhere. If Heavy Fire has a ballad, then Cold War Love is it. Another song co-written by Crane, Cold War Love mixes downbeat verses, with guitar notes that really remind me of a ticking clock, with smooth choruses with subtle guitar leads and some beautiful vocals from Warwick. Blindsided from The Killer Instict is still the band's best ballad, but this one runs it fairly close and provides a great mid-album respite from all the rock.

Those who want a bit more of the classic Thin Lizzy sound need look no further than Testify or Say Goodbye which, right from the outset, is full of the band's patented twin-guitar leads and drumming packed full of swing. The chorus is probably the album's best, and sees Warwick ably assisted by the powerful rock voice of Pearl Aday which certainly helps to add some weight. Hammond organ, played by famed session musician Fred Mandel, also helps to add some real 1970s-style feelings to the song despite only ever sitting comfortably in the background. It is the guitarwork that shines the most here however, and the main twin-guitar riff is easily one of the most memorable moments of the entire album. Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed opens with a potent bassline from Crane which drives the entire song. The verses are all about this snaking melody, while the two guitarists add colour with ringing, clean chords. Sadly, the chorus is a little weak and fails to live up the laid-back vibe that is created during the sparse verses. I think the main problem is that the lyrics are just a little wordy and you feel Warwick is struggling a little to make them fit. That is something that crops up occasionally throughout this album, and it seems a little strange as I have never noticed this before from him. True Blue Kid is another riffy song, with some really great guitar melodies throughout with Gorham and Johnson constantly playing something different but remain perfectly in tune with each other. Despite this however, the song just does not really stick with me. The vocal melodies just are not that memorable and fail to really resonate. The use of wah on the guitars throughout is great however, and the guitar solo is in classic Thin Lizzy style that you can almost hear the guitar singing! After a couple of weaker numbers, Ticket to Rise really comes along and gives the album the kick it needs! A massive, bluesy riff drives the song; and the strong grooves of the verses are just so infectious with the band's two guitarists and bassist really locking in perfectly. The three ladies who added their vocal skills to When the Night Comes In return here and it is on this song that they really shine. The gospel/soul-style that their vocals add really compliment the heavy blues of the rest of the song. Warwick's voice really mixes well with them too, and the effect is pretty special. Along with this, the song's guitar solo is one of the best on the album too. As the song moves towards it's climax, it gets even more powerful with lots of freestyle vocals from the three ladies as they sing over the song's fantastic riff. After the more mid-paced groove of Ticket to Rise, the album has one more fast-paced number left in the tank to ensure the album ends with some energy. Letting Go of Me is the first Black Star Riders song to be solely credited to Warwick, but it still has all the trademarks of the band's sound. The surprisingly laid-back guitar style, despite the song's obvious energy, actually ends up making it sound more powerful; and the simple but strong chorus helps to provide one last hook. It is a good song to end the album on, and ensures the energy remains until the end. Overall, Heavy Fire certainly carries on the good work established on the band's first couple of albums while adding a few subtle new ideas into the Black Star Riders canon. With their sound and style now well and truly established, Black Star Riders are one of the most exciting bands in rock and this album only cements that feeling.

The album was released on 3rd February 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Testify or Say Goodbye.

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