Review Summary: Good old-fashioned fist-pumping rock with a modern, individual edge.
Blues-rock appears to be making something of a comeback in the modern music scene – Led Zeppelin are emerging once more, the Black Keys sold out Madison Square Gardens in some ridiculously short amount of time, and bands like Vintage Trouble are dragging the good ol’ times back with passion and facial hair. Rival Sons’ latest offering, Head Down, carved out of the musical aether in 22 days, continues the trend in fantastic style, rising head and shoulders above the vast majority of modern rock bands. Rival Sons flaunt the seventies, side burned and flared in all their visceral glory, beckoning with the arousal of pot-hazed sex in a VW hippie fan.
The album grooves in with the opening riff of ‘Keep on Swinging’, and builds with some truly powerful vocals. The band is rock solid and really jams, pounding out some serious riffs in wonderful unison that we haven’t really seen since Free, but it is the vocals which are really spectacular. Head Down, on the vocal front at least, carries a lot more musical influence from the blues than previous records from Rival Sons, and Ray Buchanan really gets a chance to show off. He brings a confidence and a swagger that the modern music scene has been lacking, with Robert Plant’s range, Joe Cocker’s power and Muddy Waters’ soul. Tracks such as ‘You Want To’, ‘Jordan’ and ‘Three Fingers’ in particular showcase his variety and skill – he is a real exhibition of the voice-as-instrument.
The production, which is, in general, fantastic really supports Buchanan, raising him above the rest of the band, which is well-balanced. In particular, the drums are higher in the mix, the bass slightly lower than Pressure and Time, which accentuates the band moving as a single unit, providing a meshed, meaty sound.
The band’s music on this record is more adventurous in general – while they could have produced another kick-ass non-stop-rock album, there are some really special moments which stray a little from their usual territory – ’Wild Animal’ delves into The Who and rocks back into the beat much more, as does ‘Until the Sun Comes’, and ‘All the Way’ smirks with mischievousness, telling a good old-fashioned story, which includes the incredible line, “This happened many more times, due to various reasons. Usually, whisky.” That’s not to say that it feels disjointed, to the contrary, it is well-constructed as a whole, building up towards the epic ‘Manifest Destiny’ parts one and two, which is framed by the wonderfully peaceful ’Nava’, which leads the ending track ‘True’, following in the footsteps of ‘Going to California’ and ends the album with images of windswept, sunny prairies.
For most of the album, however, I was slightly disappointed with the guitar, provided by Scott Holiday, for the same reasons as other albums. While the riff work is outstanding, it feels a little shy when it comes to solos; the tracks builds up to a natural climax, but the guitar solo is often short and not particularly flamboyant, which leaves the moment a little underwhelming. I did, on the other, stop feeling this when the guitar entered in ‘Manifest Destiny’. With swathes of distortion it bases the song in some interesting Sleep influence, and proceeds into an heroic, teased-out solo that completely made up for the restraint of the rest of the album.
If I had to pick a standout track, which is hard, I would have to pick ‘Run from Revelation.’ The slide guitar and stripped-down blues sound brings a real grit that makes your sking tingle. It swells into a satifyingly distroted, heavy chorus opened by a souful shout. This track is Rival Sons’ motto, “Groove, soul and swagger” incarnate. The music moves through you as it swells towards the end.
This album is fantastic, to put it bluntly. It rocks, pure and simple. And what’s even better is that it promises more to come. Rival Sons are not simply a retro nostalgia band, far from it, and on Head Down, they have really set up their own sound, with plenty more room to play around in.