Thursday, 5 April 2018

Myles Kennedy's 'Year of the Tiger' - Album Review

Since forming the American hard rock juggernauts Alter Bridge with three members of the then recently-broken up Creed in 2003, Myles Kennedy has become known as one of the best modern rock vocalists. While he had been active in bands throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly with the alternative rock band The Mayfield Four, he was catapulted to almost instant fame with Alter Bridge. The band's sophomore album, 2007's Blackbird, has almost become a true rock classic; and they have continued to release well-received albums fairly regularly since. While still struggling to truly break into the big leagues in their native America, over here in Europe Alter Bridge are a big deal. The band have been filling arenas in the UK for the past few years, and their popularity only seems to be increasing. I am sure that it is only a matter of time before they are headlining the continent's biggest rock festivals - and this would be an honour well deserved. Kennedy has also been singing in Guns N' Roses' guitarist Slash's solo band since 2010, and has co-written two studio albums with the top hat-wearing axeman. While his work with Alter Bridge has brought his music to a younger audience, his work with Slash has also made older rockers take notice of talents. It is no exaggeration to state that he is probably one of the most well-known modern frontmen in rock, both for his likeable stage presence and his extremely powerful voice. While remaining extremely busy over the past few years with both Alter Bridge and Slash, Kennedy has always spoken of the wish to record and release a solo album. Various reports have surfaced over the years which claimed he was working on one, but nothing concrete was ever confirmed. This was the case until a few months ago, when Kennedy announced that his long-awaited debut solo album Year of the Tiger was to be released in March 2018. He had often hinted that the album would be quite different to the work he was known for with both Alter Bridge and Slash, and the album's first single proved this to be the case. In contrast to the modern, sleek hard rock of Alter Bridge, and the sleazy classic rock of Slash's solo work, Year of the Tiger is a more stripped-back affair, packed with lots of blues and classic 'singer-songwriter' tropes. While not exactly an 'acoustic' album, acoustic instruments feature prominently throughout and this allowed Kennedy's vocals - quieter than usual but no less powerful - to really shine. Thematically, this is a very personal album for Kennedy as it deals with the feelings surrounding his father's death in 1974. Kennedy tells the tale of how his deeply-religious father refused medical treatment for a serious illness in the belief that God would save him. Kennedy questions this mindset throughout the twelve songs on Year of the Tiger, as well as lamenting on his father's passing and all of the dark feelings that naturally go with that kind of subject matter.

The album opens in a laid-back bluesy way with the acoustic-based title track. Kennedy, who plays all of the album's guitars, strums the main melodies on his acoustic guitar; all while adding in some mandolin lines above; while a percussive stomp is added by Zia Uddin - who plays all of the drums and percussion instruments throughout. In many respects, this song is a microcosm for the rest of the album, and sees Kennedy clearly setting out his stall for the following 50 or so minutes of music. He instantly manages to distance himself from his main band with the warm, acoustic stylings of the piece - but Alter Bridge fans will recognise his powerful vocals from the off. He sings this song with his usual power, something which is not always the case throughout Year of the Tiger, which helps to add some early grit. The Great Beyond is one of the album's highlights for me, as it takes on an immediately much darker tone, complete with a dramatic string section. This is probably the song on this album which is closest in sound to Alter Bridge, with tremolo-picked guitar leads and a few high-pitched vocal wails from the man himself. While not a heavy track, the dark tone throughout reminds me of some of Alter Bridge's songs, and the powerful string section really bring the best out what would otherwise be some very simple melodies. After such a dramatic track hitting early on, Blind Faith definitely helps bring the album back down to earth with a really organic acoustic blues sound that, in parts, sounds like something that could have been recorded in the 1930s - albeit with modern production qualities. There is an abundance of slide guitar work throughout this piece, which helps to reinforce the bluesy hallmarks. While the song does slowly build up, with slow-paced percussive drum beats helping to fill the piece out later on, it never looses its acoustic heart. A simple chorus is probably the first real earworm of the album, while the continued use of slide guitar also helps the song to stick. Devil on the Wall is similar, and sticks with the delta blues feel of the previous number. It starts off slow and murky, but soon explodes into a real rocker with Uddin's driving drums and a big wall of acoustic guitars. Despite being an energetic number this is not a heavy rock track, although electric guitars do make an appearance to add colour and a few subtle leads throughout. The acoustic instruments still dominate. This is a song I can imagine working really well in a live setting, with a crowd really moving to the upbeat rhythms and powerful chorus.

Ghost of Shangri La is a much sparser song which contrasts with the rockier elements of the preceding couple of numbers. Kennedy makes use of plenty of guitar leads throughout, which provide the main melodic focus of the piece while the drums provide a shuffling beat beneath. Looking at the album's cover, with Kennedy playing his resonator guitar all shrouded in black, this is exactly the sort of song I was expecting to hear. Despite his big rock credentials, Kennedy proves he is more than adept at the 'singer songwriter' stuff, and this piece of bluegrass is evidence of that. Turning Stones is another understated piece, with Kennedy adopting an uncharacteristic mumble to his voice, which works well in conjunction with the atmospheric guitar melodies and the prominent bass playing from Tim Tournier. While he opens up vocally during certain parts of the song, for the most part he really goes into his shell. This is very different from his usual style, and I feel that anyone with any pre-conceived ideas of what Kennedy should sound like vocally will get a shock when listening to him here! Haunted by Design is similar to the album's title track, with a bluesy stomp that allows Kennedy to spread his wings vocally while plucking out a simple guitar melody. There is a bit more darkness here however, which manifests itself in some strange guitar swells - which contrasts nicely with what otherwise seems like quite an upbeat track. The drum pattern is quite jaunty, and the song has an upbeat folk rock feel, but the creeping darkness throughout creates an interesting unease. Mother is quite a dense song with quite a lot going on throughout. Many of the songs here have quite uncluttered mixes, with simple melodies, but this song is built of layers that all fit nicely together to form a warm whole. There are leads throughout that sound like they come from a banjo, and walls of acoustic guitar fit together to provide a rich tapestry for Kennedy's slightly tortured-sounding vocals. For a song that talks about the love of his mother, which you may expect to be a more touching ballad, this strange song feels somewhat at odds with it's subject matter. It still just about works however, and feels like something unique.

Nothing But a Name is another standout track for me, and features what is probably the best vocal performance on the album. From gentle vocal lines to piercing screams, this is a song that shows just what a great vocalist Kennedy is. The verses see him at his most gentle, with him singing atop a simple guitar and drum pattern, whereas the tougher choruses really see him let rip with some big harmonised notes. This is also the song which seems to deal with the album's core subject matter the most vividly, and as such the lyrics are extremely powerful and poignant. Kennedy has become known for his emotionally-charged lyrics through his work with Alter Bridge, but this is probably one of his best in that regard so far. Love Can Only Heal feels like the antidote to the previous number, and has the feel of a true ballad with some gorgeous guitar melodies throughout and a very heartfelt vocal performance. While there is a slight percussive stomp throughout, for the most part this song features just Kennedy with his guitars. Layers of guitar sounds are created throughout, along with some keyboards courtesy of producer Michael 'Elvis' Baskette, which help to build up to a rich whole. Towards the end of the song, Kennedy lays down some beautiful wordless vocals which really help to carry the melodies of the piece perfectly. This is another song I can see working really well live, with a crowd taking over for the wordless vocal sections. Songbird returns to what I feel is the album's 'core' sound, with a percussive sound and Kennedy's upbeat guitar lines driving the song with a strong folk feel. The chorus feels like something that Alter Bridge might use for one of their ballads, and in fact the whole song has a slightly Alter Bridge-like feel throughout. There is certainly more of a traditional rock ballad feel here, with more 'normal' sounding drums as opposed to the more hollow feel that is often present throughout the album. It is another standout piece for me, and is packed with one of the most memorable choruses here. The closing number, One Fine Day, is a simple little song which seems to close a fairly dark and emotionally charged album on a lighter note. The chiming acoustic guitar lines really jump out of the speakers and compliment Kennedy's lighter vocal performance. While the song does build as it moves along, the simple acoustic feel never truly leaves. As a result it is a really nice closing chapter to this album, and helps to alleviate some of the darkness throughout. Overall, Year of the Tiger is a really strong first solo effort from Kennedy that deals with some pretty deep emotional issues while still being melodically accessible. It is always great when a musician's solo project is pretty different from their day job, and this is exactly the case with this album.

The album was released on 9th March 2018 via Napalm Records. Below is Kennedy's promotional video for Year of the Tiger.

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