Review Summary: The return of Five Horse Johnson.
Five Horse Johnson's latest record, The Taking Of Black Heart
, comes after a 6 year gap during which the band members all took some time off to work on several projects. All that time off gave the members lots of ideas to work on, creating their most focused and mature record yet (possibly their best, too).
For those unfamiliar with them, Five Horse Johnson play some great, dirty stoner and Southern rock influenced hard rock blues. They draw a lot of their influences from '70s blues rockers such as ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd or Aerosmith, among others. Churning some of their best tunes yet, FHJ sound real tight without becoming too serious about it. Vocalist Eric Oblander has some really sharp harmonica leads, best heard on highlights like "Mexico", "Quick On The Trigger" or "Smash & Grab". He, together with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster's (of Clutch fame, who returns to perform on the entire effort), whose classic rock influences are imprinted all over, ride the album for its' entire span. The rest of the band is just as effective, throwing some cool, old fashioned, fat grooves on songs like "Black Heart Baby", "Shoot My Way Out" or "Beating In My Hand".
Even though The Taking Of Black Heart
is considered a concept album, the story line is unclear, but that's the least of the worries, as the music is the one truly capturing the listener's ears. There's a lot to love here, especially such foot stomping shuffles like "Black Heart Baby" and "Keep On Diggin'" that really give the impression the band's playing live in front of you. Then there are the laid back, cruisin' rockers, "Mexico", "Quick On The Trigger" and "Smash & Grab" that work perfectly on a smooth desert ride on a hot summer day. The vocals interplay between Oblander and guitar player Brad Coffin gives the songs different vibes, while the music unleashes itself.
There are also more contemplative, somber moments such as "Hangin' Tree" or the closer "Die In A River", giving the album a more serious tone. However, they are as powerful as the other tunes and have some great hooks. There is even a guest appearance from Cheap Trick's very own Robin Zander singing a cover of Rod Stewart's "You're My Girl". It really feels like band has a lot of fun doing it and they just go wild with the guitars and harmonica leads, turning this song into a great, unexpected jam.
One might fear that The Taking Of Black Heart
would fall at one point into a trap that a lot of blues rock records found themselves over the years, becoming a bit too formulaic, with lots of blues by-the-numbers. However, Five Horse Johnson take these variations as the basic foundation for the songs, enriching them with various elements, most notably Oblander's harmonica leads and Gaster's varied drumming. They also avoid sounding like Clutch, as the two aforementioned members played and play, respectively, with them, by dabbling more into the blues. Still, they have their similarities, heard at best on "Quick On The Trigger", but all of them are positive.
At the end of the day, The Taking Of Black Heart
is an early contender for the best hard rock/blues record of the year. It works great as a cohesive unit and with or without a clear story line, it's easy for anyone to get caught into the album's Western themed universe. Let's just hope it won't take the band another 6 years to release new material.