Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert Plant's 'Carry Fire' - Album Review

Being the big consumer of all things rock that I am, I really hate to admit that my knowledge of Robert Plant's work is very minimal. Obviously I am familiar with the majority of his work with Led Zeppelin, and enjoy listening to their albums on occasion, but Led Zeppelin have never featured as highly in my listening habits as their peers Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep. Led Zeppelin's influence on music, and not just of the rock variety, cannot be understated however and as a result Plant, as the band's legendary frontman, is genuinely one of the biggest rock stars ever. Since the band came to an end in 1980 however, Plant has maintained a prolific and highly successful solo career and truly transcends his rock roots. Led Zeppelin's music was always incredibly diverse, often incorporating blues and folk influences into their core hard rock sound, and that willingness to experiment is something that Plant has carried forward into his solo career. Very rarely does Plant sit still, and in truth he has mostly left his hard past long behind him. When Plant announced a new UK tour which included a show in my hometown of Plymouth, my interest in his solo work took off. It was getting a ticket for that show that prompted me to purchase a copy of Carry Fire, his latest and eleventh studio album. I knew that Plant's solo work was often diverse, so I was not really sure what to expect, but I was not quite expecting what I ended up getting! Carry Fire is the second album in which Plant is backed by his current backing band The Sensational Space Shifters, a five-piece group of true multi-instrumentalists. When flicking through the accompanying booklet that comes with the CD, this fact is reinforced when you read about the staggering amount of instruments that feature throughout this album. Justin Adams, Liam Tyson, Billy Fuller, John Baggott, and Dave Smith really are a talented bunch, and their diverse playing really helps to create the rich tapestries over which Plant delivers his strong vocals. 'Rich' really is the perfect word to describe Carry Fire, as it is not easy to characterise these songs in terms of conventional genres. Some of the songs here are quite whimsical, with lots of acoustic instrumentation; whereas others are quite dark and make use of plentiful keyboard textures to create various moods. What this is not however is a hard rock album and, therefore, is definitely something outside of my comfort zone. While I do like a diverse range of music, much of what I enjoy can be broadly shoehorned into the genres of rock and metal. Something like Carry Fire is definitely something out of the norm for me, but it is always good to challenge yourself and try new things. It is also great to see a legendary rocker doing something that is so far removed from what made them famous initially, but still containing the same heart and ethos.

The album opens in very sparse fashion with The May Queen, a mostly acoustic song that mixes almost-dark sounding acoustic guitar chord passages with a strong percussive backing. The guitars are fairly abrasive, and this works well in contrast to Plant's fairly delicate vocal display. He still possesses and extremely strong voice, but this soon sees him adopt a bit of a blues croon which recalls the blues music of the 1930s. Folk musician Seth Lakeman, who contributes his viola and fiddle skills to a few songs here, dominates the latter part of the song with some tasteful and prominent melodies that cut through the murky guitars with ease. New World... has a bit more of a rock feel with a prominent bassline from Fuller that intertwines well with Smith's dense drum sound. Plant's crooning vocals once again stand out, along with some delicate ethereal harmonies added at choice moments to help add an extra dimension to the piece. The guitar work is a little more expansive here, with electric guitar chords fitting in nicely alongside some spiky lead lines. There is even a laid back guitar solo around two thirds of the way through that really mirrors Plant's vocals. Season's Song is another acoustic number, but much floatier and easier on the ear than The May Queen. Comparisons here can be drawn between Led Zeppelin's work on Led Zeppelin III, but with a greater emphasis placed on Baggott's keyboards which provide the song's summery feel. Despite the song's simple exterior, there is actually a lot going on here. The guitars intertwine throughout to add plenty of textures, and Fuller's fairly prominent bass playing creates some deep-seated weight. Dance With You Tonight is based around a distant percussion pattern and it is this that really drives the song. Plant's vocals almost feel as if they are alone with the percussion at times, as the guitars are deliberately mixed into the background along with the keyboards to create something which sounds rather offhand. This changes as the song moves along however, as Plant's vocals take on more purpose. With this rise in vocal volume, the guitars become more prominent, with plenty of jangly chords to give the song a bit more of a sense of urgency. The rock vibe returns with Carving Up the World Again...A Wall and not a Fence, which has more of an upbeat feel with Smith's drumming and Plant's instantly memorable vocal lines. This is not an album that has too many anthemic choruses, but this song certainly possesses one that instantly grabs you with it's playful melodies. A fairly lengthy guitar break does change things up a bit however, as the strange guitar tone and style seems at odds with the more carefree feel that the song establishes. This works well however, and certainly challenges the listener. A Way With Words is a very different song, and instantly introduces a dark tone with Baggott's melancholic piano melodies and Plant's almost-mumbled vocals. While guitar and percussion also provide a lot to the song, this is one that really belongs to Baggott and his excellent playing. It is not just his skills on the piano which are showcased, but the ominous keyboards that fill all of the spaces between the rest of the instruments really contribute to the ominous mood of the piece.

The album's title track is one of the real standout cuts here, with a distinct Middle Eastern feel throughout with traditional instruments sitting alongside the guitars and percussion perfectly. The song actually reminds me a lot of Panic Room's Apocalypstick, as the tone and melodies throughout are quite similar, but it has it's own feel with Plant's distinct and husky voice. This is also a song that really showcases the talent and diversity of Plant's current backing band. They each play a myriad of instruments throughout this album, and have mastered the Middle Eastern sound perfectly for this song. I just love the mood and images that this song conjures up. Bones of Saints is a little more upbeat, and has an organic rock sound throughout that sounds a lot closer to the work that made Plant famous in the first place than the previous song! Smith's powerful drumming performance drives the song, but he knows when to be more restrained and this mix of styles works very well. The guitars also change between rock riffing and chiming clean melodies throughout as and when required, which is a key part of the song's appeal. A bluesy guitar solo helps to add some spice to the latter stages of the song, before Plant explodes back into the picture with a reprise of the song's simple chorus, which seen descends into some impressive wordless vocal histrionics that display the range he still possesses. Keep it Hid is a strange-sounding song with some fuzzy keyboard riffs dominating that sit atop a frantic drum pattern. The rhythms and sounds here remind me somewhat of sounds that a more commonly associated with industrial music, but with a much more organic sound that makes use of retro keyboards and real drums. I like this however, as it really sounds different from everything else on the album and sounds like something new for Plant. An abrasive guitar solo adds to the song's strange feeling and is the icing on the cake. Bluebirds Over the Mountain is a cover of the old Ersel Hickey song from the 1950s and features Plant duetting with Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders). Her voice mixes in well with Plant's, and the two play off each other nicely. Soundwise, this song is quite similar to the 'core' percussion-heavy sound found throughout, with lots of fuzzy guitar and keyboard work too. Lakeman's playing is also quite prominent again here, with lots of lead lines throughout that mix in well with the vocals. The album comes to a close with Heaven Sent which is an atmospheric, slower song that makes great use of the guitars to create moody textures while the bass and drums slowly propel the song forward. I really like the way that Plant's voice sounds here and shows that he has lost little of his magic over the years. As the song moves forward Baggott's keyboards take on a more prominent role, and a section that sees to recall Led Zeppelin's No Quarter is a nice little throwback. Overall, Carry Fire is an album from a veteran performer that sounds fresh and one that relies little on his previous work. It is great to see Plant still producing challenging and interesting material in 2017, and I look forward to hearing some of these songs performed live next week.

The album was released on 13th October 2017 via Nonesuch Records. Below is his promotional lyric video for Bones of Saints.

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