Review Summary: On their fifth consecutive record the Swedish stoner group still remain a trailblazing tour-de-force of hard hitting rock perfection.
Amazingly catchy riffs. Soaring blues-driven vocals. Fuzzy and warm guitar sound straight from the stoner rock playbook. Trippy breakdowns and Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar solos. Dynamic, 70-s like Hammond organs that match perfectly with the other instruments. Along with other these are the main weapons that Michael Ammot and his buddies at Spiritual Beggars utilize with full force, creating some of the best, most powerful and enjoyable hard rock you can possibly imagine. Combining the best elements of both the hard rock/heavy metal pioneers and the contemporary desert rock scene they released one great record after another, with 2000’s Ad Astra being a major highlight. Fortunately “On Fire” doesn’t break this trend and while it matches perfectly into the Beggars catalog, it also shows its fair number of small changes that are just enough for this album to have its own characteristics.
A major line-up change happened between the two records: Christian „Spice” Sjöstrand left the band after “Ad Astra” only to be replaced by Grand Magnus vocalist JB Christoffersson. Stylistically the two of them pretty much share almost the exact singing style, so we don’t get too much of a “whiplash by change” feeling while listening to the record. However there is still a major difference between them and this difference has its mark on the songs as well. While Spice’s vocals were strong, powerful and charismatic they also had a relaxed charm to it which made his singing very reminiscent to John Garcia from Kyuss. JB on the other hand has a much rawer, straight-forward and raspy delivery and Michael Ammot certainly fitted the album’s tone and style to fit these vocals. While "On Fire" contains the groove and hook they are known for, it is also introduces a much heavier and starker edge to the musical core.
Most of the songs on the album builds up like the opener “Street Fighting Saviors”: Energetic and memorable main riffs that actually have a much stronger vibe of classic blues-driven hard rock than the fuzzy stoner stuff. The guitars have a playful dynamic with the organs and the other instruments and the song structuring is also became more simple that the previous records by following the “verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo-chorus” style with less instances of spontaneous jamming. Of course that doesn’t indicates anything bad and if anything this record is a testament of well executed simplicity. Mid-tempo songs like the somber and melancholic “Killing Time” or “Look Back” can be brought up is somebody wants gear what an average Beggars songs sound like.
But the album also shows variety in its own territory. “Young Man, Old Soul” and “Beneath the Skin” are the songs that display the heaviness I mentioned before as they build upon downtuned and doomish riffs but instead of slow destruction they have a sense of urgency and darkened atmosphere, very much like the latter year work of Saint Vitus or Trouble. “Black Feathers” on the other hand is a song which carries the spirit of Black Sabbath to the new century with its monolithic yet confident marching. “Fejee Mermaid” gives us a small breathing time by being a short, airy instrumental while also not breaking the flow of the record. But my personal favorite has to be “Tall Tale” with its insanely catchy and rhythmic riffing making it a definitive example of motorcycle-club-level-of-cool hard rock.
Instrumentally every band member is at top tier level. Michael Ammot and Per Wilberg do most of the heavy lifting as they lay out an effective harmony between the heavy riffs and the lighthearted keyboards and clearly channeling their influences as well. Ammot’s elegant and vibrating guitar solos are a delight to listen, but Roger Nilsson’s bass and Ludwig Witt’s efficient drumming are also key players in the album’s whole sound. The production is also less bombastic than “Ad Astra” and sounds less like the contemporary stoner scene. It actually has a clear, stripped-down and straight-to-the-point like aesthetic which fits very well to the more traditional approach the band displays on the record. And to top it all up we have JB, whose performance is simply astonishing. He’s rawer, rougher yet still melodic delivery adds lifelike layer into the songs, hitting high notes with easiness and perfection. He’s not just simply a good replacement, he’s voice as a whole unique character that influenced the Beggars to show their sound from a whole another perspective.
“On Fire” was among the first couple of records I’ve heard from this band when I’ve first met with their music a couple of years ago and like any good music to this day it haven’t lost its impact in any way shape or form. Well written, well played, authentic and energetic rock music is timeless and Spiritual Beggars is a band you can almost certainly rely on. They are a small and hidden treasure but what they possess can give you so much more than many other bigger name.