Saturday, 24 June 2017

Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics' 'The Man With Stars on his Knees' - Album Review

Those who know me well will know that British hard rockers Heaven's Basement were one of my favourite young bands of recent years. My love affair with the band began when I purchased their 2008 self-titled debut EP, either in the year it came out or early on in 2009, and I was blown away by their classic rock prowess, raw energy, and surprisingly mature songwriting. It was a friend that turned me onto the band originally, and I never looked back afterwards! It is still to eternal shame ad regret that I never got to see the original Heaven's Basement line-up live, but this dream was shattered in 2010 when frontman Richie Hevanz left the band. I feared this would be the end of one of my favourite young bands, but Heaven's Basement carried on, initially with a couple of guest singers (including the excellent Johnny Fallen who fronted another now-defunct young hard rock band theFALLEN), before settling on a permanent replacement in 2011. Enter Aaron Buchanan, a name unknown to me at the time, but he soon became well known - not just to me but the entire Heaven's Basement fan base and more! Making up for lost time and gigs, I went to the band's first live appearance with Buchanan in Leicester and bought one of the very first copies of their second EP Unbreakable. I managed to catch the band live six times between 2011 and 2013, and saw the band rise from young starlets to a band that genuinely threatened to make some musical waves. Their long-awaited debut album Filthy Empire (which I reviewed here) was finally released in 2013 and it really cemented my love for the band. I really thought that the band would finally get the recognition that they deserved but it sadly was not to be. In circumstances that were never fully explained, Buchanan suddenly left the band in 2015 and Heaven's Basement were once again left without a vocalist. After fulfilling a few last live dates with Danny Worsnop filling in on vocals, Heaven's Basement were put on hold. Buchanan was the first to show his hand, and last year he announced his new band Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics, made up of his sister Laurie Buchanan on guitar, fellow guitarist Tom McCarthy, bassist Chris Guyatt, and drummer Kev Hickman. After honing their craft with quite a few live shows, the band's debut album, which had been advertised for quite some time, was finally released in May this year with the enigmatic title The Man With Stars on his Knees. The album itself is more of a solo effort however, with only the two Buchanans from the band featured along with Ryan Woods on guitar and bass, and James Curtis-Thomas on drums. Curtis-Thomas also acted as the album's producer along with Buchanan; and Buchanan also spread his wings here musically contributing some guitar tracks, bass, and even some drums to the songs present here. Musically, this sounds like a mix of Filthy Empire-era Heaven's Basement with a strong 1990s grunge influence. There is a great mix of high-energy rock songs along with slower, murkier pieces which creates a diverse and enjoyable album from one of the best modern rock frontmen.

The album opens with a bass-heavy intro piece called Show Me What You're Made Of, which features Buchanan's voice singing gently over a pulsing bassline and a quasi-marching drum beat. Despite only being slightly longer than a minute in length, the song still builds up towards the end with some big guitar chords before exploding into All the Things You've Said and Done, the album's first true song. A driving drum pattern and strident guitar riffing dominates the verses, while Buchanan takes a more restrained approach vocally, almost talking in places. This works well, and when the song explodes into the chorus he lets rip more with a powerful delivery packed full of melody. Songs like this will be familiar to Heaven's Basement fans, and this feel is retained when the band launch into a guitar solo section, presumably performed by Laurie Buchanan, which contains plenty of classic rock swagger. Dancin' Down Below is another uptempo song and is my favourite cut on the album. It is probably the closed thing on the album to the sound Buchanan helped to forge on Filthy Empire, as the song is packed full of punky energy, squealing guitar leads, and a chorus that just grabs you and refuses to let go. While the vocal performance is definitely the best part of the song, the guitar playing here is also excellent with plenty of short bursts of lead playing that cuts through the tough rhythms with ease and helps to add extra melody when required. While the first two true songs on the album are packed full of pent-up energy, the rest of the album mostly moves ahead of more of a mid-pace. The Devil That Needs You, while still a strong rocker, definitely takes the pace down a notch and that slight grunge feel can be felt, especially during the choruses. The verses certainly rock harder, with an interesting drum pattern that feels frantic, yet also strangely in control, which contrasts well with the slower chorus with ringing guitar chords used for extra melody instead of the more traditional leads. A heavier breakdown section is excellent here, with some strong Alice in Chains-esque riffing and some hoarse vocal shouts from Buchanan which are mixed into the guitars to give everything more bite. Most of the songs on this album are concise, at around the three minute mark or slightly longer, but the next two songs both just break five minutes in length. Journey Out of Here opens with a guitar pattern that builds up with layers of chords over some wordless vocals, before everything drops out to an Alter Bridge-esque verse with clean guitars and a punchy drum pattern. Buchanan's voice is almost a whisper at first, but he adds more power as he moves along and finally hits full power during the chorus sections as heavier power chords take over to really pack a punch. I have already made the Alter Bridge comparison, but that is definitely who the song reminds me the most of overall. It has that slightly earnest, but also musically epic, feel with a dynamic vocal display and a good mix of light and shade.

The album's title track is up next and it is another fairly lengthy number, at least in the context of this album. It is again a good mix of mellower and heavier sections, and it opens out slowly with some clean guitar arpeggios that create a surprisingly dark mood as the atmospheric guitar melodies swirl around the vocals. A snaking bassline also joins the fray, which helps to add weight to the song and provides a surprising amount of extra melody. The chorus is, again, a heavier moment and it retains the dark mood of the verses with layers of heavier chords and no traditional rock guitar leads. A more light-hearted instrumental section follows however, with some Brian May-esque guitar lines which cut through the gloom with plenty melody and finesse. This is a very vocally-focused album, so it is great when the guitarists get a chance to cut loose occasionally and add a little variety. A God is no Friend is a slower number, and opens with a slightly bluesy guitar lead and spooky chords to back it up. The grunge mood is enhanced here with a slow-moving drum beat and Buchanan's voice has some subtle harmonies with it throughout to add that depth that bands like Alice and Chains always had vocally which was a big part of their sound. He unleashes a few howls throughout, which almost border on harsh vocals at times, which acts as a bit of a chorus, but mostly this song stays more down-beat. It is an extremely atmospheric piece despite the lack of any real heaviness and it shows something very different from what Buchanan was known for with Heaven's Basement. Left me for Dead picks up the pace again with a bass-heavy sound and a more powerful vocal delivery from Buchanan. The way the bass is mixed here gives the song a very dense and heavy sound, which is a big contrast from the sound that preceded it, and it helps to give the album a bit of a kick after a slower turn. It is songs like this that really allow Buchanan to show off more of his voice, and it makes you realise he has a much greater and range and talent than was ever explored on Filthy Empire. A strange guitar solo dominates the song's middle, which has an almost tortured sound which is certainly different from the norm. Mind of a Mute opens with some almost Eastern-esque wordless vocals before exploding into another riff that would fit nicely on an Alice in Chains or Soundgarden album. The Seattle sound is definitely a huge influence on this song, and in fact much of the album, but it is certainly more prevalent and obvious here. The bass is once again quite high in the mix, which gives the song quite a thick sound which means Buchanan has to really power his way over the top of the music with his voice and makes for a raw and strong vocal display. Snaking guitar leads dominate the song's ending section as the song moves towards a powerful and slightly chaotic climax. The final song here, Morals?, definitely has quite a theatrical Queen-like feel with a dynamic vocal performance, especially during the verses. The choruses are catchy too, and even feature some piano chords to add a certain drama, but it is of course Buchanan's excellent vocals that continue to drive the album right until the end. Overall, The Man With Stars on his Knees is a really strong debut solo effort from Buchanan and his collaborators. Despite throwing a lot of different influences into the songs, the album still maintains a strong identity and has a concise feel that makes me continually want to revisit it. I look forward to seeing where he will go from here.

The self-released album was released on 26th May 2017. Below is the band's promotional video for Dancin' Down Below.

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