Review Summary: A Creature Feature that doesn't hold back.
At this point in John 5’s career, it’s easy to assume people know him for the virtuoso guitar player he is, having played with David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, as well as flexing his muscle on 7 solo albums -- with solo records being something John has gotten pretty good at doing over the years. John 5 has had a good run of albums, it has to be said, and making an instrumentally guitar driven album that’s engaging is no easy challenge; it can be a turbulent process and dishearteningly difficult finding a balance that showcases the artist’s large skill set, whilst crafting an album that’s actually enjoyable to listen to. Because there’s nothing more frustrating than hearing someone shamelessly shred for 40 minutes with little else behind it. This tends to by why I normally avoid an album like this, but John is a rare exception and someone who knows the balance well, having built a discography of high quality albums. His ability to shift from style to style is seamless, and is never conveyed in a contrived or pretentious manner -- but more importantly, it’s always been enjoyable to listen to.
Up until 2014’s Careful With That Axe
I thoroughly enjoyed every single release by John; his knowledge on the guitar appeared to be bottomless: blending bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock, metal, funk -- you name a style, he’s implemented it at least once on his solo records. The problem with the album in question is it felt like the first proper misfire in John’s squeaky clean discography; it lacked the panache and excitement everything previous created, falling prey to being forgettable and, for the first time, a little formulaic and predictable. His solo’s sounded vapid, and the music leading up to them were rudimentary at best. So, it comes as a weary surprise that three years on from that album we have a new record, and a rather important one at that, as it will reveal if John has ran out of juice -- and should have realistically called it a day after God Told Me To
-- or if album number 7 was simply a minor slip up.
Thankfully Season of the Witch
is a much more interesting offering than its predecessor, with some great ideas at the heart of the record, and the occasional pitfall made. Despite my initial worry with where the album was going, it quickly deviates from the norm. The album kicks off with a great opening track, that sets a really dank and ominous mood. I actually thought this was going to be something that really pushed the envelope and focused more on being a score of sorts than a shred-a-thon, but I was instantly disappointed that it shifted into “The Black Grass Plague”: a track that opens with Mr.Lowery shredding on autopilot; solos that you’ll have heard him comfortably play a million times over by now. The track does redeem itself somewhat later on as it goes into -- as the song title suggests -- a blue grass style, but it’s the bulk of John’s riffing that leaves the track in the dirt. In spite of this track though, and the album’s rocky start, it doesn’t represent the rest of the LP, and John doesn’t use his “play it safe” riffing continuously, opting for more interesting ways to deliver his parts than a rehash of derivative ones found on the previous album.
And that’s what made John 5 albums so damn fun to begin with, he used to create a crazy solo, but offer you it in a really exciting way; with compositions that twist and turn into frantic roller-coaster rides. Thankfully that’s largely present here: the likes of “Now Fear This”, for its face-meltingly impressive solos, and “Season of the Witch“ holding the beans for being beastly feats of endurance and precision; while tracks like “Making Monsters” and “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” are so well constructed, they feel reminiscent to the God Told Me To
days, where melody was just as important as finesse. And this is Season of the Witch
’s biggest asset, there’s more to the songs than being full-throttle all the time: the quiet jam section of “Guitar Tits and Monsters” was a surprising and enjoyable shift in sound, while the Black Sabbath inspired outro of “Making Monsters” was a great way to close the track. However, the best track on this record is “Ode to Jasper”, weighing in at just over 1 and a 1/2 minutes, this gentle, atmospheric post-rock piece shows a side to John I’d like to see more of. Unfortunately, there is a few weak moments here and there: the likes of “Ddd” and “Hell Haw I.GR” are basically just dull fret-wanking exercises that don’t offer a great deal of promise, and while the album generally avoids the mundane solo sequences I mentioned earlier, they do appear in songs every now and then, which breaks up immersion.
As with the previous album, the production goes for the organic, live experience, where you can tell they recorded as a full band. This was one of the few redeemable qualities to be taken from Careful With That Axe
and it’s nice to see they’re continuing the trend here. As this goes beyond being just John now, the other members are heard a lot more predominantly. Sure, they’re never truly emphasised like John is, but it’s nice to hear other things going on if you choose to listen to it; and you can clearly tell the other two members have serious chops. It’s a solid record, and certainly a return to form. It’s just, at this point, because of how overused some of his chops are, it’s getting to the stage where he really needs to think about shaking things up or calling it a day on the project.
SPECIAL EDITION: N/A