This is not the first time that events within Black Country Communion have threatened to overshadow an album release but, with the band breaking into factions and undignified rows taking place in the press and over Twitter rather than in private, it may well be the last. If that transpires to be the case it will truly be a tragedy for Black Country Communion have not only captured the style and substance of the seventies heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, but also the speed and feverishness of invention that characterised that decade, recording three albums since their inception in 2009. ‘Afterglow’ has had a troubled gestation period. Originally slated to be a Glenn Hughes solo album, the band were eventually reconvened at a studio in Westlake Village and, over the course of a remarkable five days, proceeded to lay down the eleven tracks that make up ‘Afterglow’.
‘Afterglow’ is an apt title indeed. It is the sound of a band who have grown comfortable musically (if not personally) and who feel no pressure to repeat their previous outings. Glenn’s insistence that the record was ‘a continuation’ of the journey begun on the first two records proves to be accurate and it is notable that ‘Afterglow’ does not start with a barn-burning exercise in histrionic vocals and molten riffs, but instead eases its way into your consciousness with the funky ‘Big train’, a track that allows plenty of space for Derek Sherinian’s keys and a positive showcase for Jason Bonham’s exemplary skills as a drummer. Here Glenn’s love of soul is laid bare as backing singers sweeten the chorus and Glenn’s own funky bass runs light up the paired-back verse. Not that Joe is absent from the track – an understated, gloriously bluesy solo takes us towards a bridge which for all the world oddly sounds like latter-day Genesis. Upping the groove and setting Joe off with a riff that burns and smokes, ‘This is your time’ is a mixture of Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden and it sounds thoroughly immense, even whilst the chorus is a restrained affair that allows more room for vocals than for guitar, it only serves to make the central riff sound all the more powerful. ‘Midnight sun’ takes its cues from The Who for its ‘Baba O’ Riley’-aping intro before heading off in a considerably heavier direction, Glenn’s voice straining at the leash as Joe’s riffs pile up over Jason’s heavy-duty percussion. There’s certainly plenty here for heavy rock fans to get their teeth into, but time and again it’s notable that there’s deftness, a lightness of touch that was only present sporadically on previous releases, and the result is a set of songs that flow beautifully together, taking the listener on a journey that charts the course of rock from the early seventies right through to the present day.
The first track to be heard from the album ‘confessor’ is already, undoubtedly, embedded in the heads and hearts of all those who have enjoyed the Black Country Communion thus far. For those who have missed out it’s a storming number with more than a touch of Purple about its driving riffs, prominent keyboard washes and full on percussive attack. Of course, being a Hughes composition, there’s also a deep seated sense of melody and the lung-bursting chorus on the track is a particular highlight. ‘Cry freedom’ is a full on blues stomp that sees both Joe and Glenn step up to the microphone together, making you realise just how good the two singers sound together. The album’s title track (described, accurately, by Hughes as an epic) is a slow-building number that grows from a humble acoustic beginning into a full-blown rock monster over the course of six, spine-tingling minutes of hard rock heaven. There is no surprise they named the album after this track – it neatly encompasses all that is great about Black country Communion and the thought that this band may not last much longer becomes all the more unbearable as the album progresses. ‘Dandelion’ contrasts the subtle tones of acoustics on the verse for a full on, multi-layered chorus with vocal harmonies and steaming riffs all combining to get your body moving whether you wish it to or not, and Glenn’s vocal performance here is second to none.
Slowing the pace, ‘the circle’ is a progressive-minded track that recalls Southampton artist Steve Thorne with its elegant, smooth vocals and subtle melody sending shivers down the spine, whilst the heavy chorus builds up a head of steam as the track slips towards its conclusion, Joe’s solo a particular highlight even as it is rather low in the mix. By far the funkiest track on offer, ‘Common man’ is a chocolaty-smooth slice of funk-infused soul that slinks into view wearing a genuine mink coat and shades even though it’s midnight and dark all around.
Of the final two tracks ‘the giver’ is another track that takes the album in a gently progressive direction, with hints of Genesis, Steve Thorne and The Who shot through the track’s genetic make-up. It’s a trick that the band pull off well, and the softer tones provide perfect contrast for the heavier riffs found elsewhere. The closing track, arriving all-too-soon as always, ends the album on a rocking note. Entitled ‘crawl’, it does indeed grind into view on a brutal guitar riff that has as much Sabbath about it as it does Zeppelin, although the highlight has got to be the lead battle between Bonamassa and Sherininan in the song’s closing moments. It’s a phenomenal end to an album that showcases the very best of Black Country communion over the course of its eleven tracks.
If this is, as current behaviour suggests, the end of Black Country Communion then fans will be left with the bitter-sweet knowledge that their band went out on a high. All three of the Black Country Communion albums have been spectacular, but what ‘Afterglow’ offers is a sense of cohesion – possibly the benefit of a greater gestation period – that was only fitfully present on previous outings. Derek Sherinian gets a greater role here and the band sound comfortable as a unit, each musician bringing his own distinctive style to the plate over the course of eleven varied and brilliantly written tracks. Credit must also go to Glenn Hughes for his bravura vocal performance. Exercising the full range and depth of his stunning voice, his clean, warm tones are the perfect foil to his more familiar rock ‘n’ roll roar and it is strongly arguable that his performance here is one of the best vocal performances of the year, if not the best. On every album BCC have demonstrated growth, if they stop here it will be a genuine loss to the community, but if the worst should happen we should at least be grateful that the band found time to record ‘afterglow’ for it is an amazing achievement that will capture the attention and imagination of rock fans the world over. A singularly brilliant record, ‘afterglow’ will undoubtedly hit album of the year polls everywhere and deservedly so – it is an excellent record.