I’m not sure where the trend started, perhaps at Reading festival, but it seemed during the crowded 2000’s that acts who had only released one album were being pushed into the headline slot solely because they were that year’s big thing. It was, and is, symptomatic of an industry that has consistently put profit in the way of creativity and it is fair to say that such a situation puts as much stress on a band with insufficient material to fill a 90 minute set as it does on the patience of concert lovers who far more often appreciate an established band in the top slot than some flash-in-the-pan group with one over-hyped disc to their name.
Black Country Communion understand this. They understand that heading off on a world tour with a couple of fleshed out demos, one album and a rag-bag of covers does not make the best entertainment and so they took the unusual (and in this day and age almost unprecedented) step of holing themselves up with producer Kevin Shirley and working on an immediate follow-up to the album that had rock critics falling over themselves to heap almost entirely justifiable praise upon. It is a step that harks back to the days when Black Sabbath might do three albums in the space of a year, or Kiss who pulled a similar trick, because inspiration rather than money was the driving force behind the band and here the inspiration is clear – Black Country Communion want to ROCK.
When reading interviews with bands and previews of albums, artists and media alike (myself included before you imagine I’m looking down from some metaphorical box of soapy flakes) hyperbole is prevalent and why not? After all an album is, even in these mercenary times, an exciting thing and when a group of artists get together to create something the results can be magical. Glenn Hughes has been waxing lyrical, for what seems like an age, about “2” whipping public and media alike into a frenzy of anticipation. It is a dangerous gambit; too much anticipation can as surely kill an album as the rampant apathy that greets obscure releases but here, for once, the anticipation is well founded and the hype is justified: “2” improves upon its predecessor in almost every way and the emphasis is firmly upon grabbing the listener and dragging them on a tour of hard rock that lasts for a thrilling sixty minutes and takes in crunching riffs, vaguely progressive elements, powerful ballads and a voice that has rarely, if ever, sounded as majestic as it does here.
Long-time readers of SonicAbuse will remember that I was somewhat enthusiastic over the debut release from BCC. This album does not detract form that remarkable record. I felt that it was a brilliant, joyful piece of work and I still do. It’s just that “2”, quite remarkably, is better. From the moment that Joe Bonamassa’s guitar growl bursts into the thunderous riff of opening track ‘the outsider’ recalling nothing so much as vintage Soundgarden being given a mighty kick by Led Zeppelin you know that you’re in special territory indeed and Glenn Hughes sounds utterly on fire. His voice rips out of the speakers and as impressive as the guitar/keyboard soloing of the bridge is, it is the man’s voice that takes this thing to the next dimension; tuneful, raw throated and unmistakably powerful it hits you first and you can imagine Glenn himself, standing at the mic with veins a-bulging as he delivers each performance on the first take. Meanwhile a second and third listen lets you appreciate the band’s beautifully played elements more and it’s clear that this is the sort of record that you will want to spend plenty of time getting to know. Sure it’s immediate enough, but like the very best rock records it won’t give up all its secrets at once and believe me that you’ll want to come back again and again to these eleven slabs of pure, primal rock music.
Speaking of primal rock, ‘Man in the middle’ cruises on a MASSIVE, crunchy, beautiful riff that makes the previous album sound ever so slightly tame in comparison. It takes that blues edge that Joe Bonamassa brings to the party and distorts it out of sight, creating a monster in the process and this, coupled with Jason Bonham’s earth-moving drums, makes it the heaviest track by a mile, hinting at elements of Led Zeppelin via the vaguely eastern sounding keyboards, Sabbath-style metal and even a hint of Aerosmith in their pomp making the track mandatory listening for anyone who thinks that hard rock has lost its edge of late. Opting for a folkier edge, ‘the battle for Hadrian’s wall’ is a heady mixture of Led Zeppelin’s III, Deep purple and Free with powerful bursts of heavy guitar and all manner of atmospherics courtesy of the keys and Joe’s gloriously understated solos. The vocals once again take centre stage here and it is a versatile performance shifting from smooth ballad tones to a snarling rock edge without hesitation and building the song to a furious crescendo while the wild instrumentation swirls around like a storm on the moor. This is epic song-writing indeed, and Black Country Communion engage in it without pretence or artifice, creating what can simply be termed a great batch of rock songs that will translate thrillingly to the stage thanks to the complete absence of pro-tooled studio skulduggery.
The lengthy ‘save me’ is next and engages in a mixture of hard rock and progressive music recalling Poland’s Believe in the process. Opening with a short intro that actually (get your poison pens ready) recalls Genesis, Joe then unleashes a glorious stop-start crunchy riff and gets the song moving towards the perfectly melodic and unashamedly sing-along chorus. Eastern influences abound in the strings and chord structures, while all manner of atmospheric touches raise their head thanks to Derek Sherinian’s keys although it is irrefutably Joe’s show when the beautifully paced solo kicks in and showcases just what a talent the man is. ‘Smokestack Woman’ brings the rock back in over a slam-dunkin’ five minute track that sees Hughes’ wailing like a banshee and the band crushing all the opposition behind him, but this is as nothing compared to the dark, wonderful ‘faithless’ which sees a vocally faultless performance stand atop a beautiful piece of music that is both steeped in rock lore and forward looking at the same time. Like the previous album that BCC stamped their name upon, the music here is timeless, faultless hard rock that is quite simply impossible to dislike thanks to its pure, honest, power and the fact that the four musicians on the record are at the very top of their class.
Taking a more acoustic style, ‘ordinary son’ sees Bonamassa return to the mic (he also leads ‘Hadrian’s wall’) and the man’s smoky, soulful voice is somewhere between Thunder’s Danny Bowes and Paul Rodgers meaning, simply, that he can more than hold his own against the leather-lunged Hughes. It is also a quite beautiful song, free of pretence and artifice and orchestrated with a gentle restraint by the band who allow Bonamassa’s vocals the chance to shine although they can’t resist rocking out on the keyboard-enhanced chorus and lengthy bridge section. ‘I can see your spirit’ has no such subtlety or delicacy of spirit – rather it rocks out via pounding drums, a full-on vocal performance and chunky guitar riffs that recall the might of Chickenfoot. It’s a true foot-on-the-monitor gem and it stands out as one of the most immediate tracks on the disc, a wild-eyed, strutting, sex-fuelled monster that issues a stark challenge to any other hard-rock band that may dare to release something this year – BCC may do subtlety but they are never afraid to smash out the goods when the mood takes them. ‘Little secret’, on the flip side, is the come down – sitting in a smoke-filled bar with the lights down low and sipping whiskey alongside all the other worn out husks of humanity. It’s a hard blues gem, but with an epic feel that actually brings to mind the James bond theme tunes of yesteryear if only they’d been played by Hendrix and Clapton and at seven minutes Bonamassa has plenty of opportunities to show off his skills.
Of the final two tracks ‘Crossfire’ is the more laid back, with a driving bass line and watery guitar sound. It’s the sort of track that feels initially weak before you suddenly get slammed in the head by the sort of riff that fuelled rage against the machine’s first album and you can only wonder how these four musicians can still catch you unawares this far into the album. Vocal harmonies, crunching guitars and a solid-gold chorus are all present and like many of the tracks here it benefits from repeated listens to really let all the nuances seep into your soul. The final track, ‘cold’ is an epic, near-seven-minute slow burner which, like little secret’ takes its cues from the blues end of the spectrum and it is the ideal closing number for an album that spends most of its time hopping around with its tail on fire.
In these days of mass-produced, ego-fuelled pop acts, X factor contestants and mainstream newspapers declaring that rock is dead (again) it is heart-warming that bands such as BCC stand tall and fly the flag for real music. This isn’t the soulless sound of musicians filtered through endless computers and effects racks, this is the warm, analogue sound of four top-rate musicians working together because they love rock music. The sparks that fly here are genuine and the passion they have for the genre oozes out of every note – there truly is no dud moment on the album and it is imperative that as rock fans we join together to support endeavours such as this. Sure you could download it but wouldn’t it be amazing to see such an astonishing and powerful rock record go to number one? Hell I have a promo copy and my vinyl edition is already on pre-order. This is the sort of epic, powerful rock music that cynics find it all too easy to declare just isn’t made any more and I have no doubt that this will be in the top ten albums of the year as surely as it will still be on my record deck in several years from now. This is not something you want to miss.
Band Photo C. Christie Goodwin