Thursday, 14 December 2017

Santa Cruz's 'Bad Blood Rising' - Album Review

Of all of the Scandinavian hair metal revival bands that have been active over the past decade or so, Finland's Santa Cruz have always seemed to be the ones who are least-comfortable with that tag. Since forming back in 2007, the four piece have been honing their craft and have started to create a sound which is their own. Santa Cruz have always taken more influence from bands like Skid Row and Guns N' Roses than from Poison and Ratt, but there has always seemed to be a desire from the band to create a much heavier and ballsier take on hair metal. The band's debut album Screaming for Adrenaline, released in 2013, was a fairly standard but perfectly enjoyable hair metal album. The band's look; blonde hair, cowboy boots, vests etc.; fitting in perfectly with their fun-loving sound, but for my money could not really compete with similar efforts from bands like Reckless Love and Crashdïet. It seemed that maybe the band sensed this, so for their second album Santa Cruz opted to shake things up a bit. The self-titled album (which I reviewed here), which was released in 2015, was markedly heavier than Screaming for Adrenaline and seemed to feature a large nu-metal influence with tough guy-esque lyrics and weird electronics. While I quite enjoyed the Santa Cruz album at the time, it is not an album that has aged well for me. There is nothing wrong with the vast majority of the songs on the album, and when I have seen the band live the songs from the second album have always sounded great, but the production choices on the album itself really seem questionable. The rawer live sound does so much for these anthemic songs, and it is a shame that the album versions are somewhat hampered by a band's attempts to stand out from the crowd. Two years on from Santa Cruz and the Finns are back with their third album Bad Blood Rising, and it goes quite a way to right the wrongs of the previous effort. Santa Cruz still clearly have a desire to sound tougher and heavier, but that has been approached in a much more organic way here. Instead of relying on tropes that sounded out-of-date in the early 2000s, Santa Cruz have just opted for a heavier, punchier overall sound that works well for their melodic hair metal songwriting style. There is still plenty of double bass drumming here, and some of the lyrics are still quite angsty, but this album just feels much less forced and more 'real' than the previous one. The band's image and core songwriting style will always be rooted in the late 1980s, but with Bad Blood Rising it feels that Santa Cruz have managed to successfully forge this original influence with a more modern sound. There are a lot of different styles to be found on the band's new album, which shows the depth of their songwriting and also that Santa Cruz are a forward-thinking band who are unwilling to repeat the same things over and over again.

The album opens with one of the lead singles, the anthemic Young Blood Rising which definitely sees the band channelling their inner Skid Row. Driven by a meaty riff from guitarist Johnny Cruz, the song is packed full of energy and attitude with Archie Cruz's call-to-arms lyrics. The modern influences rear their heads throughout, with breakdowns that would not sound out of place on your average metalcore album and an extremely fast guitar solo which is certainly of a higher octane than many hair metal bands could muster. That being said, this is an 1980s stomper at it's core and features a chorus that is made to be heard live. River Phoenix has more of a modern sound, with poppier vocal melodies, but still contains plenty of grit with slightly dirty riffing and a strong bass presence. Despite this, the song is extremely accessible and has possibly the best chorus on the album with plenty of gang vocals and soaring melodies. Johnny Cruz shines throughout too with lots of fluid guitar leads that cut through the mix at every opportunity to give the song more depth and musical intrigue. Fire Running Through Our Veins is a faster song that opens with a powerful guitar riff before moving into a strong verse that moves along at a good pace. Despite the heavier feel, there is still plenty of melody throughout, and a wordless vocal section that follows the chorus is full of pop sensibilities that is sure to go down well live. Drag Me Out of the Darkness is similar, but takes on more of darker tone with slower verses that are lead by mournful piano melodies and a strong bassline. Archie Cruz's voice is better suited to the heavier, ballsier songs in my opinion but he still does well here when things get a little less full-on. Despite the slower verses, the rest of the song is still pretty powerful and everything ramps up during a sing-a-long chorus which culminates in some excellent twin-lead guitar melodies. After three songs that focus on the higher-energy end of Santa Cruz's sound, this is a nice diversion and shows the band doing something a little different. This vibe is continued during Breathe, but it is taken to a next level. The song is an acoustic number, with whistled melodies that instantly bring Guns N' Roses' Patience to mind. It is not a rip-off however, as the song has a much more modern feel with poppy vocal melodies and a simple piano backing to add depth. Further depth is added towards the end with some simple strings that really elevate the last portion of the song. Voice of the New Generation hits hard after two fairly quiet songs with some riffs and melodies that would not sound out of place on a pop-punk album, but with enough 1980s influence to make it sound like Santa Cruz. While the lyrics are extremely stock, with rallying cries to the youth that we have all heard plenty of times before, it still comes across well and re-establishes the band's heavier sound after a breather.

Back from the Dead opens with a great hair metal guitar riff, before descending into a more modern feel with a big bass presence and a swampy sound with Archie Cruz's vocals standing out. The song is quite a big mix of styles however, and possess one of the biggest choruses on the album with lots more gang vocals that really leap out of the speakers. It also contains one of the album's best guitar solos too. It is quite a long one, and sees Johnny Cruz really letting rip with some fast, bluesy shredding that fits in well with the song's tough riffing. Bad Habits Die Hard is more of a mid-paced piece, but it is another that mixes a few different styles together together successfully. The opening riffs are quite heavy, with an almost-industrial harshness at times, but this is mixed in with sparse poppy sections which feature a synthy backing before a really melodic chorus kicks in and takes the song to another level. This album features some of Santa Cruz's best chorus melodies yet, and shows that they are starting to work out to mix their melodic roots with a more modern sound successfully. Pure Fuckin' Adrenaline, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more of a high-energy song that actually has a bit of a mid-1990s Megadeth feel with a driving bassline, snarling vocals, and buzz saw riffing. The energy never lets up throughout, and this is thanks in part to some excellent drumming from Taz Cruz that mixes simple beats with more powerful double bass patterns when required. Santa Cruz's rhythm section mostly sticks to simpler ideas which help to prop up the songs, but there are moments when they really shine and help to define the song. This is one of those moments and it makes this song the last hard-hitting moment on the album. Get Me Out of California is another slower song which has a strong acoustic presence throughout. While a more involved song than Breathe, the gentle vibe is ever-present here and has the feel of a song to be sung around a campfire late at night. It works well though, and sees the band revelling in the more stripped-down environment. Things do pick up somewhat towards the end, and Johnny Cruz launches into a bluesy guitar solo that is worthy of the mighty Slash himself, bu the song's gentler heart is never too far away. The song ends on a long fade out, which sees the band singing the band's main melody over and over. This is where the album should have ended, as it would have been the perfect fade out to close everything out. Instead however, the band included one final track, River Phoenix (Part 2), which is a fairly insipid re-working/re-imagining of the excellent River Phoenix. It is such an odd sounding song, which is miles from Santa Cruz's usual sound, and it just seems stuck on at the end of the album without any real purpose of sense of place. It has the feel of a bonus track, and a bit of experiment that should not be considered part of the main album, but it is and it definitely harms the album for me. It was such an unnecessary inclusion on this album, and it makes the album end on a down note after the excellent proceedings songs. The bad final song aside, Bad Blood Rising is a very good album from the Finnish band and one that is a big step forward from the previous one. Santa Cruz seemed to have found their sound now, and I look forward to see where they take it going forward.

The album was released on 10th November 2017 via M-Theory Audio/Salem House Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Young Blood Rising.

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