Friday, 6 October 2017

Black Country Communion's 'BCCIV' - Album Review

While the term supergroup if often thrown around in relation to a lot of bands, there are few bands that quite deserve that mantle as much as Black Country Communion do. Formed in 2009, with the help of producer Kevin Shirley, the Black Country Communion flame burned bright with three studio albums being released in as many years interspersed with a fair amount of touring. Formed by vocalist and bassist Glenn Hughes (Trapeze; Deep Purple; Black Sabbath; California Breed) and blues prodigy guitarist Joe Bonamassa, the duo's aim was to recreate the heyday of great the British classic rock band. Keyboardist Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater; Planet X; Sons of Apollo) and drummer Jason Bonham (Airrace; Virginia Wolf; UFO; Foreigner; Led Zeppelin; California Breed) were brought on board, and the band's self-titled album was released in 2010 to excellent world-wide reviews. The sound was pure classic rock, mixing bluesy rock riffs, walls of Hammond organ, and the ageless screaming vocals of Hughes to form a perfect sound that could have been released in the mid 1970s. Due to the instant success of the first album, the band rushed back into the studio to record the follow-up. Black Country Communion 2 was released the following year, again to great reviews. Despite a few shows to promote the first album, it was after the release of Black Country Communion 2 that the band really took to the road for the first time. The decent-length tour was also well-received, and the band were the current darlings of rock magazines and websites the world over. The following year, the band's third album Afterglow was released. By this point however, cracks were beginning to show in the band. It was clear that Hughes wanted Black Country Communion to be everyone's main focus, but Bonamassa was struggling to balance the needs of the band with the needs of his hugely successful solo career. Things came to a head not too long after the album's release, and Black Country Communion were over. Hughes and Bonham formed the short-lived band California Breed, and Sherinian joined Bonamassa's solo band for a time, but it seemed that Black Country Communion were over for good. Hughes and Bonamassa's fairly public spat was evidence enough of this, and it also seemed that the pressure that Shirley was putting on the band to keep putting out albums at a yearly rate just burnt everybody out. That is why it was a surprise last year when Hughes and Bonamassa announced that they were putting the band back together and were at work writing the band's fourth album. That album, titled BCCIV, was finally released last month and it is clear that none of the spark that was found during the band's original run has been lost during the hiatus. In my opinion, the break has actually helped the band's creativity, and the material on BCCIV is probably my favourite from the band since their debut. The songs here are some of the catchiest and varied the band have done to date, but everything is presented in that fabulously retro hard rock sound, all wrapped up by Shirley's raw production.

While many of the album's compositions are fairly lengthy, BCCIV gets underway with two punchier numbers. Lead single Collide opens things up with a strong bluesy guitar riff from Bonamassa that drives the whole song, just resting for enough time to allow Hughes to croon the verse lyrics with Sherinian's keyboard backing. Structurally the song is quite similar to Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, with a repeating riff on which the song is hung, and strong bluesy overtones. While Black Country Communion is a true band, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hughes and Bonamassa dominate the sound. Bonamassa has plenty of opportunities to solo throughout this album, and that includes a somewhat psychedelic bluesy one here. While a faster solo might have been expected, the slower one here works well and is a great contrast to the song's simple riff. Over My Head is built around a staccato riff, with Hughes' bass guitar and Bonamassa's guitar playing in perfect unison, and is packed full of Hughes' soul and funk influences. The chorus in particular exemplifies this, with some fairly airy high vocals from Hughes and some spacey guitar chords. Fans of Mk. III/IV Deep Purple will certainly enjoy this one and sees Hughes pair things back a little to good effect. In contrast The Last Song for my Resting Place is an epic piece with folky overtones that mixes gentle, ballad-esque sections with heavier rock explosions. It is the only song on the album sung by Bonamassa and opens with acoustic guitars, pianos, and even fiddles (courtesy of Gerry O'Connor) which marry together perfectly. Bonamassa's vocal style is much more reserved than Hughes', but it works well for this song. His delicate bluesy overtones really fits in with the music here and gives the song a different feel to the rest of the material on the album. It is not all gentle and acoustic-based however, as heavier moments appear throughout. This is especially true during Bonamassa's lengthy solo section part-way through which has a driving keyboard backing and a fat bassline to back it up. After the gentler overall mood of the previous song, Sway comes in with the intention to rock! A frantic riff drives the song, but atmosphere is provides throughout by an excellent keyboard display from Sherinian. I have always felt his skills have been underused in Black Country Communion for the most part, so it is great to hear him in such a prominent role here. His organ playing really cuts through the mix and provides an almost-orchestral feel at times, which works well with the punchy hard rock sound the rest of the band are working towards. As with the majority of the band's songs, there is an excellent solo from Bonamassa part-way through. This one makes great use of screaming string bends, which really adds to the raw rock feeling of the piece. The Cove is another change of pace, and makes use of a murky, atmospheric blues tone throughout. Musically the song bares similarity to artists like Tom Waits, but Hughes' distinctive voice helps to add that classic rock swagger. Bonamassa's guitar playing is often fairly discordant throughout, which helps to create an unsettling vibe, and Sherinian's mix of simple piano notes and darker organ sounds adds to the murkiness. While this song does not represent the band's usual sound, it remains a strong number on the album and provides a change of pace around the album's halfway mark.

The Crow returns back to the band's more traditional sound with a huge bass opening and a palpable energy caused by Bonham's drumming. Hughes' vocal performances throughout the album are always expressive, but during this song in particular he really lets go with some wails that a man half his age would struggle to achieve so cleanly. A song like this has more in common with Led Zeppelin that Deep Purple, and shows the scope of sound the band are able to cover. There are even sections which are dominated by Sherinian's ringing piano chords which seem like subtle nods to Queen despite the rawer rock overtones. A fantastic instrumental section sits in the middle of the song, and opens with a fairly lengthy bass solo from Hughes, before moving through a Hammond organ solo from Sherinian. Unsurprisingly it ends with an explosive solo from Bonamassa, showing how talented all of the members of the band are. This is a song that sees Black Country Communion firing on all cylinders and is a perfect representation of what they are about. Wanderlust is the album's longest song at over eight minutes in length, and it opens out in a more relaxed manner with a laid-back piano led section that has more in common with bands like the Eagles than the band's usual influences. The length of the song allows some progressive influences to creep in, and it is perhaps telling that Sherinian's keyboard playing is very prominent throughout, often sitting behind his piano to dictate proceedings. Not to be outdone, Bonamassa makes his presence throughout heard with plenty of bluesy breaks of lead in between lines of vocals, and a laid-back but excellent solo part-way through. From his performance throughout this album, it is easy to see why he is often considered one of the best guitarists on the world at the moment. The next couple of numbers reign in the lengthy and return to the simpler structures of the opening couple of songs. That is not to say that Love Remains is a back-to-basics rocker however, as it has more of the soulful influences that Hughes has tapped into throughout his career with a smooth vocal performance and a strong keyboard presence. Hughes has made a big effort to return to his real rock roots since the turn of the decade, and his soulful influences have largely taken a back seat, so it is great to see a couple of numbers here that really make use of that sound. Bonamassa is up to the task for these kinds of songs too, and shines here with a really slow and slightly twisted guitar solo which is quite different from his usual bluesy style. Awake showcases Bonamassa's bluesy influences, with an upbeat shuffle sound that allows him plenty of room to improvise around his riff. The song's playful nature helps it to stand out from the rest of the album and gives the back end of the album an energetic lift. Perhaps the highlight of the song however is a great instrumental section which sees both Sherinian and Bonamassa playing off each other with fast keyboard and guitar runs that almost meld into one at times. The album comes to a close with another lengthy song When the Morning Comes. Like The Last Song for my Resting Place, the song opens up acoustically, but really builds up to an epic rock arrangement drenched in Hammond organ and another really expressive vocal performance from Hughes. There are plenty of instrumental moments here, and this gives Bonamassa a last chance to really spread his wings with some more excellent soloing. This is another song however which shows everyone at the top of their game, and perfectly showcases the band's somewhat proggier side. It is a great end to the album, and feels like a modern classic rock epic. Overall, BCCIV is a really great comeback from one of the best rock supergroups around. It contains some of their best material yet, and has firmly put the band back in the mind of rock fans the world over.

The album was released on 22nd September 2017 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Collide.

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