Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Thunder's 'Rip it Up' - Album Review

For a band that allegedly broke up in 2009, Thunder have certainly been busy! A one-off reunion for the High Voltage Festival in 2011 seemed to give the band a new lease of live and sporadic live activity has followed ever since. In fairness the 2009 break-up was the band's second disillusionment, so it just seems that Thunder cannot keep away for long! Despite missing the heyday of hard rock music in the 1980s, Thunder have since become one of England's best-loved bands, and have an extremely loyal and dedicated fanbase around the world. I always liken them to Marillion in this regard, and are one of those bands who have remained big and popular outside the mainstream with very little attention from the mass media. The band, who is still made up of four of the band's five original members, were very successful in the early 1990s. The band's 1990 debut album Backstreet Symphony is a true British hard rock classic and is an album that, in my opinion, they have never bettered. The next two albums, 1992's Laughing on Judgement Day and 1995's Behind Closed Doors, both made the top 5 of the Official UK Album Charts but ever since then the band have become a bit of a cult act. Still, the band's popularity endured and they have become well-known in rock scenes all over the world for their no-nonsense hard rock shows and their bluesy rock anthemic songwriting. Guitarist Luke Morley, who has almost single-handedly written the band's entire back catalogue, is an extremely consistent songwriter. While he probably does not really stray from his comfort zone enough to really give Thunder the ability to turn new heads again, there is no denying that he is extremely good at what he does. His songs, coupled with frontman Danny Bowes' melodic, bluesy voice, is the Thunder blueprint and their partnership is a big part of what has made the band such a big draw over the years. 2015 saw the band release their first album in seven years. Wonder Days (which I reviewed here) was easily the band's best album for quite some time and it even troubled the charts again, cracking the top 10 for the first time since 1995. For a band of Thunder's stature, it made quite a splash and was featured on may Albums of the Year list that year. Two years later and Thunder return with Rip it Up, their eleventh studio album overall. I have to admit that this one has taken me a bit of time to get into. Wonder Days was a great in-your-face, groovy blues rock album, but this one is much more a slow-burner with less of the big hooks that made Wonder Days such an instant hit. That aside, it has been a big commercial hit for the band, and reached number 3 of the Official UK Album Chart, the band's highest entry since Laughing on Judgement Day (which reached number 2 in 1992). While it has not made as big an impression on me as Wonder Days did, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Lynne Jackaman (Saint Jude), Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn; Odin Dragonfly; Mantra Vega), and Susie Webb add female backing vocals throughout which adds a slightly different edge to this album and is something the band have not explored that often previously.

Rather than going for the jugular right away, the album starts off with the more subtle rock of No One Gets Out Alive. That is not to say that Rip it Up opens with a ballad or anything, but compared to previous Thunder album openers this song is definitely a little more laid back. The big open guitar chords ring throughout in a great rhythmic pattern, and Bowes immediately shows his bluesy quality with a strong, but slightly paired-back, vocal performance. The solo emphasises this bluesy feel with a slow flurry of well-chosen notes backed up by Ben Matthew's simple keyboards. Despite not being as much of a rocker as some might expect, the catchy guitar chords act as the album's first real hook, and the lovely organic guitar tones really shine through. The title track is next and this definitely rocks a little harder, with a soaring guitar lead during the song's intro which soon morphs into a crunchy verse with staccato power chords and sultry vocal performance. The chorus is the first real sing-a-long moment of the album, and it packs a real bluesy punch with a strong strutting feel and the subtle female vocal harmonies to add colour. A simple, but effective slide guitar solo works well later on in the song, before another chorus rounds things out nicely. She Likes the Cocaine is a down-and-dirty rocker with some wah-drenched guitar melodies and a low-key verse which is driven by Chris Childs' pulsing bass line. It never really rocks out, but the bluesy vibe that has been present throughout so far is ramped up even more here, with the cutting guitar leads and retro organ sounds. The song features Jackaman's vocals prominently and the song does pick up towards the end, with the addition of some bar room piano mixed in, and Bowes and Jackaman's voices mix in together well. Right from the Start is a ballad, something which Thunder have always excelled at. A piano-based intro soon gives way to acoustic guitars which is the perfect backing for Bowes' vocals. It does build up as it goes along, with the addition of keyboards, bass, and drums; but it never strays far from it's acoustic base. The bluesy solo is fantastic too, and sounds like something right of out a classic 1980s acoustic rock song - almost Cinderella-ish! It is a lovely song for it, and the subtle female wordless vocals used towards the end really help to elevate it and move towards a poignant ending. Shakedown is more of a rocker, but more in the laid back She Likes the Cocaine way with sparse verses and a strong percussive sense from Harry James' drumming. The choruses are heavier however, with a big riff which is sure to go down well live when it kicks in. This song is quite typical of the album's overall sound, and acts as a microcosm for where Thunder are musically at the moment with the mix of laid back swagger and hard rock riffing. Heartbreak Hurricane has a strong Led Zeppeling vibe, especially during the intro riff which features a jangly rock riff mixed with a strong acoustic presence. This permeates the whole song too, with strong use of retro organ sounds throughout and acoustic guitars to carry the main melodies throughout. Bowes' bluesy vocals are well-suited for this overall, and he shines here. When he really starts to let rip during the chorus, it is clear that his voice has not aged much at all and still sounds as strong as he did in the early 1990s.

In Another Life has a strong retro feel too, with a bassline from Childs, augmented by Matthews' keyboards, dominating this smokey bar room piece. The sound conjures up images of the band sat around on bar stools playing this song to drinkers and pool players on a Saturday night. Matthews' keyboards take the front seat here, with a solo at one point and a sound which just drenches everything else throughout. Keyboards have never been the biggest part of Thunder's sound, with Matthews often playing the guitar alongside Morley, but every so often they add another dimension to the sound and make their presence felt. The Chosen One is somewhat more upbeat, but Childs' bass guitar still manages to dominate the song early on, although some sharp riffs to join the fray after a little while. Lots of little layers are added to the song as it moves along, with bright piano notes and plenty of lead guitar added in to keep things interesting. The short instrumental section towards the end is a big of a highlight, with Morley's lead guitar duelling with Matthews' piano notes to good effect. The Enemy Inside is a bit of a throwaway bluesy rock song but it still manages to work well. It is the sort of song a band like The Quireboys could probably make into a big of classic, but Thunder have always been a little more varies and dynamic than that and songs like this do not always suit them. The bluesy guitars are great, but are not delivered with the real strut that a song like this required. The guitar solo is great though! Tumbling Down is probably the toughest rocker on the album, and features a mean riff that really comes roaring out of the speakers. It is telling of the album's vibe however that a song like this is the album's 'heaviest' piece and shows that Thunder have clearly made a conscious decision to tone down somewhat here. I think the sound suits them to an extent, but riffs like the one in this song make you wish for some harder rockers at times. That being said, this is a really strong song with another good chorus that Bowes really owns vocally. As with most of them here, the guitar solo is great. Morley and Matthews are both great players and, although it never credits individual guitar solos to the players, you can be assured that both are on fire throughout with great tone and note choices during their solos. There's Always a Loser, the album's closing number, is another ballad and this is probably the best of that kind on the album. Matthews' deep, ringing piano chords dominate the song early on which sit above a rather lumbering drum beat but it seems to work well. The song does ramp up occasionally, with some hard rocking guitar chords, but it is the piano and vocals that are the song's main driving factors. Sometimes ballads to close albums end up falling a little limp, but that is not the case here as the song is strong and packs a decent emotional punch - especially for an album as laid back as this. Overall, Rip it Up is another really enjoyable album from Thunder despite the more slow-burning feel throughout. Personally I feel that a couple of real up-tempo hard-rocking song would have really added to the album, but I can see what they were trying to achieve here and they have pulled it off. I am sure this will not be the last we see of the band, and I look forward to seeing where they go next!

The album was released on 10th February 2017 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for No One Gets Out Alive, which is taken from a live studio session.

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