Sunday, 24 September 2017

Voodoo Six's 'Make Way for the King' - Album Review

There was a time when I would have considered the British hard rock band Voodoo Six as one of my favourite bands. The year was 2008 and a friend of mine lent me a copy of First Hit for Free, Voodoo Six's debut album (well, technically it was their second album but since it was basically a reissue of Feed My Soul I count it as their debut). I was not that taken with the album at first, but the same friend and I saw the band supporting Blaze Bayley in the same year and I was blown away by the band on stage. We saw them again later the same year, this time headlining the same venue (the sadly-gone White Rabbit in Plymouth), and that show still ranks as one of the best small shows I have ever been to. As I have mentioned in many Heaven's Basement-related posts on this blog of late, 2008 (and the years immediately surrounding it) were key years in my musical development. It was when I was starting to discover new rock bands for myself, and at the time I genuinely thought many of these bands I was seeing in tiny venues would be the classic rock legends of the future. Sadly, this never happened for any of those bands I was growing to love, but thankfully Voodoo Six is one of the few bands of that ill-fated generation that are still going. In fairness the Voodoo Six of 2017 is almost unrecognisable to the Voodoo Six of 2008, with only two members to link the two eras of the band, but the attitude remains similar. First Hit for Free was dominated by the vocal prowess of Henry Rundell, who left the band sometime in 2009 to be replaced by Luke Purdie. Purdie's deeper, bluesier voice led Voodoo Six to adopt a heavier, grittier sound on 2010's Fluke? which remains a stellar album that really rivals First Hit for Free for me. The 1980s glam rock trappings were gone to be replaced with an almost southern/grunge influence at times, but overall Fluke? was just a hard-hitting rock album packed with attitude and energy. I saw the band a few times over the next couple of years, culminating in an excellent headline show at the Cavern in Exeter in 2013 which was almost as good as that show in Plymouth five years previously. This show was on the eve of the release of Songs to Invade Countries To (which I reviewed here), an album which contains plenty of strong songs but is not one which I regularly revisit. It gained the band some greater exposure however, and they toured as the main support to Iron Maiden for many shows throughout 2014. Towards the end of the year however, Purdie left the band due to health reasons and the band's momentum stalled. It took a year for the band to announce their new permanent singer, but Nik Taylor-Stoakes' (Voodoo Johnson) appointment was finally announced towards the end of 2015, as was the fact Voodoo Six were about to start working on their fourth album. Fast forward two more years and Make Way for the King, Voodoo Six's fourth album, is finally here! It has been a long time coming, but it is clear that there has been much change in the band and they needed to take their time to really get this album right. Taylor-Stoakes has made an immediate impact, and has gelled perfectly with the songwriting team of guitarist Matt Pearce and bassist Tony Newton to create an album of groovy, bluesy hard rock that has all the hallmarks of the past couple of Voodoo Six releases. Sadly however, this is also the band's first album (with the exception of the original Feed my Soul) not to feature guitarist Chris Jones, who left the band sometime over the past couple of years on the quiet. This is a shame, as his shredding leads were always a big part of the band's sound, and his style complimented the looser, bluesier style of Pearce perfectly. As a result Pearce's guitar sound dominates here, which gives the album a certain uniformity but lacks some of the real explosiveness that Jones could bring. Craig Price is credited on this album as a member of the band and a guitarist on the album, but I believe that all of the guitar work here is Pearce's. Price also seems to be out of the band now, so despite this excellent new album it seems that there is still some instability in the Voodoo Six camp.

The album opens with the mid-paced rock of Electric which starts off with a powerful grunge-inspired riff that is backed up well by Joe Lazarus' (who also is conspicuous by his absence on the current tour) hollow drum groove. The thing that is immediately apparent about this album is that the change of singer has not altered the band's sound in any way. Taylor-Stoakes has a similar voice to Purdie, although not quite as deep and gritty, so he fits perfectly in the band's established style. This is particularly apparent in the song's tough chorus, which reprises the opening riff, which sees him growl the lyrics with ease. Stylistically this song is classic Voodoo Six, and carries on the good work laid down on their previous three releases. The next song, which is the album's title track and lead single, picks up the pace somewhat and really opens out into a faster rock number after a slow intro. Pearce's riffing here is excellent, and really nails the bluesy southern rock style that Voodoo Six sometimes employ. Newton's bass is also historically very important to the band's sound, possibly more so than average for a hard rock band, and he dominates the slower verses with a snaking groove while the guitars add colour with effects-heavy clean sections. The chorus is instantly memorable too, with Taylor-Stoakes crooning the vocals perfectly against the heavy riffing backdrop. Pearce's guitar solo is also excellent here, and contains some bluesy shredded sections that are more furious than his usual style. If anyone needed any more convincing that Newton's bass playing is just as important to Voodoo Six's signature style as Pearce's guitar playing, then they should listen to Walk a Mile. The bass leads the song throughout, and gives everything real weight with a punchy opening while Pearce's guitar dances around it with a slow lead. The verses here are quite rocky, but the choruses are slower and more atmospheric with Taylor-Stoakes' crooning vocals. While initially he sounds very similar to Purdie, over the course of the album he demonstrates a little more emotional depth than his predecessor. This is not a criticism of Purdie, as he was a perfect fit for the band, but I do not think he would have excelled at singing sings like this one. Falling Apart is a groove-heavy piece that opens with Newton's growling bassline and some chiming guitar leads. It soon picks up the pace however, with a riff that would not sound out of place on an Alice in Chains album, and a choppy section towards the end of the verses that is instantly memorable. Once again the song slows down during the choruses, which helps them to make an impact after the faster verses, and showcase Taylor-Stoakes. Riot is one of my favourite songs on the album, and opens with a mid-paced bluesy riff that is full of kinetic energy that leads into a choppy verse that is once again backed up by an excellent bassline. It is the chorus that really makes this song however, from the stop-start riffing that introduces it to Taylor-Stoakes' excellent vocal delivery during it. It is probably the most memorable moment on the album, and that riff that heralds the chorus' arrival is constantly playing in my head at the moment. Amen is the longest song the band have ever written at over eight minutes in length, but it has all the classic hallmarks of the band's sound. The song was written in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan Theatre in November 2015, which helps to give the song some emotional weight, especially during the choruses. One this song does which is different however is to introduce some strings part-way through. Voodoo Six have never really used elements like this before, and it helps to add another dimension to this already grand song. The are prominent during solo, emotional Pearce's guitar solo, which really helps it to hit home. The song really becomes the centrepiece of the album, and will probably become seen as one of the band's real classics going forward.

Until the End returns the album to simpler, riffier territory however with a powerful opening riff and a hard rocking verse that makes a great use of it. The band's style on this album seems to be to slow down for the choruses, which often works well but sometimes I feel it would be better to keep the energy high throughout. I feel this song would have benefited from a more in-your-face chorus, rather than the slower one it got. Release the Hounds is another real favourite of mine, and again features Newton's bass playing prominently. As the bounds founding member and lead songwriter, Newton is the man who has held Voodoo Six together over the past ten or so years despite all the line-up changes. Voodoo Six is his band, and it is great that his bass is always so prominently featured. It has always been a big part of the band's sound, even right back in the early days, and it something that makes them stand out. The chorus in this song is another very melodic moment, with Taylor-Stoakes really howling the vocals with a real appropriateness given the song's subject matter. This is one song where the chorus remains up to speed with the rest of the song, and the energy never lets up throughout. The Choking is more of an atmospheric piece which maintains a slow pace throughout and makes more use of the strings introduced earlier in the album. Pearce's guitars mostly provide clean melodies and chords throughout, atop a slow drum beat, but thing do pick up somewhat during the choruses. They are heavier, with a bigger guitar sound, but retain the slower feel of the rest of the song. This is the closest thing to a ballad on the album, and it works well to contribute to a change of pace after one of the album's heaviest numbers. Walk a Mile is a more upbeat rock song lead by a simple riff that holds the whole song together. Many of the songs are bass-lead, but this song definitely puts Pearce's guitar playing right at the front of the mix. In many respects, this song has a real old-school Voodoo Six feel, and would have fitted perfectly on First Hit for Free and Fluke? as it fits in with the more back-to-basics aesthetics of those albums. The chorus is another catchy one, and even makes use of some gang vocals for extra effect. Despite a great guitar solo from Pearce, this is one of the songs here I feel would have benefited from one of Jones' moments of unbridled shredding. On the whole Pearce's guitar playing throughout this album is excellent, but that mix of styles that I mentioned earlier is certainly missed here. Wasteland opens with some bluesy guitar and bass interplay, that gradually builds up into a dirty guitar riff that again sounds like the Voodoo Six of old. While I like the style the band have adopted more recently with the slower choruses and more bass-dominance, I really like it when the band lets rip like this with a high-energy feel packed with guitar riffs and a commanding vocal performance. This is a song that was made to be heard live, and I can imagine it really hitting home like Crawl and Something for You do when those songs are played live. The album's final number, Swept Aside, returns to the more bass-heavy sound that dominates the album. While a good song, I think it would have been better if it swapped places with Wasteland, as the high-energy of that song would have made for a better closing number on the whole in my opinion. That being said, this song does grow towards the end and again features the strings which have been used in a couple of places already on the album. It does provide a strong end to the album, but I feel one of the heavier songs would have done this slightly better. Overall, Make Way for the King is another really strong album from Voodoo Six. While similar in style to Songs to Invade Countries To, which really introduced this grungier, more bass-heavy style in a big way, I feel this album eclipses it. A couple of songs on here are up there with the best things Voodoo Six have ever put out, and I look forward to hearing where they will go from here.

The album was released on 8th September 2017 via White Knuckle Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Make Way for the King.

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