Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Snakecharmer's 'Second Skin' - Album Review

The term 'supergroup' is often overused these days, but in the case of Snakecharmer I think it applies. While the members that make up the still-relatively young blues rock band might not all be instant household names, many of the songs they have been a part of over the years are world-famous. Snakecharmer was initially put together in 2011 by two founding members of British rock legends Whitesnake. Guitarist Micky Moody and bassist Neil Murray reunited and assembled a strong ling-up of musicians which initially toured playing sets consisting of many early Whitesnake classics. Joining Moody and Murray in this new venture were frontman Chris Ousey (Heartland), guitarist Laurie Wisefield (Wishbone Ash), keyboardist Adam Wakeman (Ozzy Osbourne; Headspace), and drummer Harry James (Terraplane; Thunder; Magnum). While Ousey's bluesy voice is more akin to Paul Rogers' tones than David Coverdale's style, Snakecharmer impressed live and the chemistry between the six band members was clearly there from the off. New material was inevitable, and two years later the band's self-titled debut album (which I reviewed here) was released to strong reviews. While the busy schedules of the individual band members has always limited Snakecharmer's live activities, the band toured as often as they could in support of the album, with a set that contained a healthy amount of new material alongside Whitesnake classics. At the end of the 2015 UK tour, Moody announced that he was leaving the band, and I was probably not the only fan who feared the band would slowly fade away as a result. Thankfully, that has not been the case as the band recruited Northern Irish guitar sensation Simon McBride (Sweet Savage) to fill the void left by Moody. Despite enjoying a short stint with reformed NWOBHM stalwarts Sweet Savage in the mid-1990s, McBride has mostly made a name for himself on the blues circuit as a solo artist and has supported Jeff Beck and Joe Bonamassa among others. This new-look Snakecharmer regrouped last year and began to write the songs that would eventually appear on their second album, which was released earlier this month as Second Skin. While the material on the first album was mostly written by a combination of Ousey, Moody, and Wisefield; Second Skin sees the Ousey/Wisefield writing partnership really coming to the fore. The other four members of the band have also contributed to the album's songwriting, but it is Ousey and Wisefield that dominate which helps to give the album a strong overall identity. While I enjoyed Snakecharmer, I think the material on Second Skin is stronger overall and there are a few songs on here that really jump out as instant personal favourites. While the blues rock sound of the first album is intact, some minor changes have been made to improve the album's overall feel. Wakeman's keyboards are definitely more prominent in the mix than previously, which is a big improvement in my opinion, and overall Second Skin just seems to rock a little harder than Snakecharmer with more energy and attitude.

The album's opener, Sounds Like a Plan, really kicks things off nicely with a heavy, uptempo blues rock feel. The clean guitar chords and keyboard intro soon gives way to a snaking main riff and a driving verse which is lead by Murray's melodic bass playing. Ousey sounds more energetic throughout this album, and this new-found confidence is displayed instantly on this song. He packs the verses with enough grit to match the bluesy rhythms, and explodes in the soaring chorus by belting out the lyrics. Wakeman's keyboards add extra depth to the choruses, with lots of flourishes which are quite reminiscent of those classic 1970s horn sections that many bands utilised around that time. The Kind of Love, the album's lead single, is very reminiscent of the majority of the songs found on Snakecharmer. James' drum beat grounds the song as a simple guitar lead provides early melodies while the keyboards swirl around underneath. Ousey is a little more restrained in the verses, but lets rip more during the choruses when the band ramps up behind him with some ringing power chords and stabs of Hammond organ. Wisefield and McBride display their new-found chemistry throughout, with many subtle twin-guitar harmonies and a great mix of fuzzy chords and bluesy leads. Are You Ready to Fly, the only song on the album co-written by McBride, is a muscular mid-paced slab of blues rock. The main riff is quite slow, but it packs a real punch, and the Hammond organ backing really takes the listener back to the 1970s. It is perhaps unsurprising that Murray's bass playing is prominent in a song like this, and his growling playing really helps to add depth. Murray's playing always added the boogie to those early Whitesnake albums, and he does the same throughout Second Skin. There is a great instrumental section here with some great off-kilter guitar rhythms which explodes into a soaring bluesy solo, before transforming back into the song's Free-like chorus. Up next is Follow Me Under, which is easily my favourite song from the album. It is an uptempo piece of bluesy party rock with a driving power chord riff and some excellent vocals from Ousey. The song is consistently great, but it really comes alive in the chorus with some classy melodies a big keyboard arrangement. The two guitarists impress again with plenty of bluesy melodies throughout. It is songs like this that really set Second Skin apart from Snakecharmer and show that the band have improved as songwriters over the past couple of years. I'll Take You as You Are is another mid-paced rocker, akin to Are You Ready to Fly but with a little lighter feel. Acoustic guitar melodies dominate the verses and Ousey uses a slightly more delicate approach with the vocals. As with many of the songs on the album, the song really ramps up during the choruses with a more expressive vocal performance and lashings of Hammond organ. The guitar solo is excellent too, and packed full of classic bluesy phrasing. Unfortunately the album's booklet does not specify which guitarist plays each of the solo, so I cannot credit the individual player! Hell of a Way to Live carries on the mid-paced feel, but racks up the heaviness with a very catchy verse riff and booming drums. James' meat and potatoes drum style is sometimes a little basic for my taste, but it is songs like this where his simplicity really wins out. Sadly the song is let down a little by an uninteresting chorus, but points are regained during the excellent guitar solo.

Fade Away is the closest thing to a proper ballad on Second Skin, and is the album's slowest moment. The spacey opening guitar lines are unlike anything else on the album and put the listener in a dream-like state. While the guitars and keyboards are mostly used for atmospheric purposes throughout, it is the bass that actually ends up providing the most melody. Murray's bassline is far from simple and dances through the song adding subtle twists and turns to always maintain the listener's interest. Ousey really excels during the song too with a varied and emotionally-charged vocal performance. Ousey was probably the least-known member of the original Snakecharmer line-up, but he has proved himself to be an excellent singer and seems to have really come into his own here. After a few songs that reduced the album's energy somewhat, Dress It Up comes along and kicks things up a gear once. Again, the song is similar to much of the material on the band's first album, but hits the spot with a raw riff and another snaking bassline. The chorus is another winner, with lots of vocal harmonies to create a call-and-response type vocal arrangement which will ensure the song becomes a concert staple in future. This type of uptempo boogie blues rock is what I feel Snakecharmer excel and I would not be surprised to see them include more of songs like this on future albums. I feel songs like this bring the best out of Ousey's vocals and allow for Wakeman to really let up with his Hammond organ. Punching Above my Weight, one of the two songs on the album written by Ousey and James, is an acoustic-led rocker with a light, but upbeat feel with simple melodies that make it an instantly memorable moment on the album. While the band does ramp up somewhat as the song goes on, the acoustic guitar chords still dominate the sound along with the keyboards. The song's emotionally-charged guitar solo is the real highlight however, and it carries on even after Ousey starts to sing again. I like that touch and it really brings the best out of the vocals and the guitars as the two work so nicely together. This song is quite different to the rest of the songs on the album, but it works well and stands out for that reason. Forgive & Forget is another mid-paced piece of blues rock, complete with some excellent barroom piano from Wakeman as well as his usual Hammond organ chords. It is probably the most 'cliché' blues song on the album, with aching guitar leads that make use of lots of note-bends and a plodding bassline. There are lots of soulful backing vocals used throughout too which adds to that old blues feel. The album's final song, Where Do We Go From Here, is the other song co-written by James. It starts off as another slower number, with dark-sounding clean guitar chords and a restrained vocal performance. Approximately half of the song remains in this slower, sparser mode but the keyboards get more dominate as the song crawls along. The rest of the band comes in towards the end with raw power chords and lots of squealing leads too bring the album to an exciting close. Overall, Second Skin is an impressive follow-up album from Snakecharmer and shows the band in a new and improved light. The songwriting is much stronger here I feel, and this is an album I can see myself playing a lot over the coming months.

The album was released on 12th May 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for That Kind of Love.

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