Friday, June 11, 2010

Black Country Communion - Debut Album Review


                                           "I am a messenger,
                                            this is my prophecy....
                                            I'm going back,
                                            to the Black Country."

That's where it all begins, following the most memorable intro to a rock and roll song that I've heard in way too long.  It's the intro to Black Country, the lead track of the debut record by Black Country Communion, the super-group comprised of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian.  Hughes's amazing bass line kicks off the tune like a clarion call to arms for rock and roll, and he's quickly joined by Bonham doing some nifty cymbal work before Joe Bonamassa fires off one of the coolest riffs ever to grace a rock record.

Let's get one thing straight.  If you want to hear comparisons to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Free and The Who (and I'm not saying they wouldn't be favorable), you're gonna have to go elsewhere.  What I will say is that this record is the best debut disc I've heard by a new rock band in the last twenty years.  To waste our time trying to find comfortable reference points is to sell everything short - this project stands on its own and neither wants nor requires aid to describe the brilliance it contains.  Regardless of the context in which you place it, it delivers the goods.

I first heard the record described by Glenn Hughes back in February, shortly after I had written an optimistic blog stating that this combination of players could produce the sleeper record of 2010.  Glenn initially spoke with a confidence and pride that had me reeling backwards, hopeful, but wondering if it really could be as good as he described.  Subsequent to that initial interview, I began hearing comments from various sources who had heard material at producer Kevin Shirley's studio, or on the Bonamassa tour bus, and their comments were as powerful as Glenn's.  Bonamassa bassist Carmine Rojas raved when we spoke in early May, after having just heard the final mixes, and Red Hot Chili Pepper and sometime Hughes confrere Chad Smith also waxed enthusiastically of the album's excellence.

Black Country continues with Hughes belting out a veritable mission statement when Joe Bonamassa unleashes a furious wah infused solo that invokes much that we have nearly forgotten to expect from a rock record.  I found myself laughing out loud at the power and beauty of it all.  I hadn't gotten a goosebump from a new song in too long, had all but given up on the probability, yet there they were.  Instantly Bonamassa assumes the title of rock guitar god - the world will have yet another accolade to heap upon the young guitar wizard when the record is released on September 21.

Coming out of the solo section, Hughes sings the chorus a cappella with Bonamassa answering each line with a scorching retort that compares with the greatest call and response moments in rock and blues history before Sherinian takes the reins and leads the band out of one of the most memorable introductions I've ever heard.

It's clear that the Black Country signifies to Hughes his early rock roots; this is firmly entrenched in the earthy depths of the soulful sounds he had described to me back in February, when he passionately described the kinship he felt for his homeland roots, where he had grown up with Jason's father, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (a huge fan of Hughes's early 70s band Trapeze), and how vitally important it was to have Jason in this group.

If there were still singles, at least in the form that most of us recall from the halcyon days of big budgets and vinyl jukeboxes, One Last Soul may have been the record's first 45 rpm.  Most readers are already familiar with this track from the YouTube videos that appeared when the band made their live debut at a Bonamassa show in Southern California a few months back, but for those who aren't, this is a powerful piece of classic hard rock that sounds at once familiar and yet brand new.  It struts with a confidence that recalls the days when men in rock bands didn't look at their shoes, tuned their guitars, and looked like stars.  This is a song made by men who travel in jets and drive fast cars, and don't mind who knows it.

Joe Bonamassa is well known by his fans for his melodic slow blues numbers, and The Great Divide kicks off with a sexy, sultry single string attack that soon gives way to some very sophisticated music making from the entire band that belies the speed with which this record was made.  Hughes tells this tune's tale with great ethos and passion.  While many speak of Glenn's vocal abilities in terms of powerful histrionics, his subtlety, range and superb phrasing is the real story here.  He sings of the beauty of the great divide, and I can't begin to doubt it.  The man sells the song spectacularly.  This is why many call him The Voice of Rock.

Bonamassa's guitar solo on The Great Divide starts as a slow builder with a reprise of the tune's intro before he bursts into a conversational confession of silky sweet melody.  Jason Bonham is brilliant here, as he is across the whole album - he's finally made a record in which he drives the band and fully displays his awesome skills.  His playing is his and his alone, with no mention or reminders of his vaunted past being necessary.   

Next up is Down Again, which swaggers wonderfully as Hughes sings a classic tale of the need to keep rocking and rolling along.  The chorus has a wonderful reprise with great harmonies singing, "I'm Down Again," as Hughes assures us that, "It's not all over," and indeed it's not, as Joe Bonamassa rips off yet another sizzling hot solo before Bonham and Sherinian bring the band beautifully back into a repeat of the chorus.  This is yet another tune that sounds like it could have been months in the making instead of a few short days.

Beggarman has Bonamassa working his wah pedal hard on the intro to this sophisticated piece of rock writing that mixes elements of rock guitar god maneuvers, sleek funk and gritty rock.  This is a very modern take on a very classic sound.  It puts me in mind of much great rock history, yet sounds very new and exciting.  The guitarist performs a blinder of a straight ahead rock and roll solo filled with acrobatic pentatonics and cascading crescendos bringing to mind Steve Vai's best work.  Smooth as silk but still edgy and thrilling.

Singing a lead vocal on an album that features the vocal talents of Glenn Hughes is a task that not many people would attempt, and I will admit wondering how Joe Bonamassa would fare singing side by side on a record with one of rock's greatest voices.  His vocals have improved with every new release, but this was a whole different venue, singing big rock beside the legendary pipes of Mr. Hughes.  The Bonamassa penned ballad Song of Yesterday shows the pupil holding his own very capably, and when Hughes does join in, it only adds to the beauty of this soulful number.  Derek Sherinian, a keyboardist of amazing technical skills, displays his awesome ability to melodically enhance a vocal performance, with some tremendously empathetic work that supports Bonamassa's singing before Joe takes the tune to rock riff city and Hughes joins in on the vocals.  While this song would not sound out of place on a Bonamassa solo record, Hughes, Sherinian, and Bonham's assistance render something brand new out of an already successful formula.  Bonham and Hughes push Bonamassa's solo to higher and higher ground - you can hear them listening to one another very closely, and Sherinian keeps showing up in the perfect place, playing the perfect part.

Jason Bonham kicks off No Time, which features another great Hughes vocal performance, enhanced by a powerful unison riff played by the guitarist and bassist which somewhat puts me in mind of the vastly underrated King's X.  This is a tune that shouts out that it wants to be played loud and live.  It rocks along very solidly until Sherinian throws the band into a moment that I can only call a Zeppelin-esque raga that leads the band into a vaguely flamenco sounding refrain with Bonham supplying a perfect snare drum recital before a thunderous fill that takes the band back into another passionate Hughes chorus.  The hooks on this record are huge and frequent.  Expect to hear yourself humming and singing along almost immediately.  Isn't this fun?  A review of a record that is not only wildly enthusiastic, but also completely accurate?  I'm having a blast writing this.

Medusa.  This song is nearly as legendary as its namesake, and once again, I had a bit of trepidation in my head and heart when I heard that it would be included on this album.  Too many times, classic rock acts have re-recorded old standards and almost always disappointingly.  One more time, my fears have been obliterated as Joe Bonamassa takes ownership with a great tremolo'd intro, Gilmouresque slide fills, and a sledgehammer heavy riff-o-rama.  Glenn Hughes sings this track as if he knows it is finally going to get the listen it has always deserved.  Bonamassa and Hughes sound as if they have been playing together for a great many years, not a few precious hours.  Another example of a great band of musicians who are expert not just at their instruments but also at listening and sensitively supporting one another.

Nine tracks in, and no slow down in sight.  I can't remember the last time this happened.  It's been many seasons since a record held me hostage for nine songs straight.  How glorious.

In fact, The Revolution in Me, another Bonamassa lead vocal, had me riveted as Joe sang and played as if his very existence were dependent upon his performance.  This is simply great hard rock - heavy as a hammer and with great support from Derek Sherinian's Hammond B-3 organ, and Jason Bonham's awesome display of tub pummeling.  Midway through, Sherinian switches to an electric piano sound that evokes the Michael Schenker era UFO, and Bonamassa reacts with a very Teutonic bit of melodic soloing that will have fans of heavy rock smiling wildly and thrusting fists to the heavens in staunch admiration.  From beginning to end, Bonamassa is stretching into new horizons and doing so with grace, power, and beauty.

On Stand (At the Burning Tree), Hughes again takes the microphone on the track that most closely resembles his funk informed solo work.  Echoes of very European sounding riffage by Bonamassa conjures the rock ghost of a certain side-burned, black wearing six stringer, and the shadow is a pleasant shade of purple.  Very gypsy, but this gypsy is sophisticated, and Hughes knocks at the doors of Stevie Wonder and other smooth, soulful vocalists before slipping back into a powerfully rocking chorus.  More brilliance that is made even more so when one realizes that this was recorded almost on the fly, in a matter of days as opposed to months.  While Hughes great vocal chops get the lion's share of attention, his songwriting and bass playing are both stunning throughout this entire album.

Containing rock and roll that brings to mind Australia's Young brothers and sleek sophistry, Sista Jane switches gears seamlessly as Hughes and Bonamassa trade lines back and forth before returning to the straight ahead rock of the chorus, yet another great hook.  I've never heard Joe Bonamassa sing quite this well.  Obviously singing next to Glenn Hughes has elevated his game, and he's again proven his mettle, and defied any lingering doubts that could exist concerning his vocal skills.

While I have attempted to avoid direct comparisons, discussion of the end of Sista Jane must speak of The Who.  The band pay loving homage to the glory days of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, as Bonham and Hughes throw down rhythms that serve as reminders of exactly what it means for a bassist and drummer to be called a rhythm section, and finally Sherinian brings the message home with a loving dose of Who's Next keyboarding.

The record ends with an epic jam entitled, Too Late for the Sun.  Clocking in at eleven and a half minutes, Hughes and Bonamassa sound like 21st century outlaws in an arid showdown at the OK corral.  Two soul cowboys; a modern day, rock and roll Butch and Sundance.  This track is one that would become larger than life when played on stage.  Sherinian shines very brightly on this song - his B-3 cuts through the mix like a knife and allows Bonamassa the luxury of getting a bit atmospheric and experimental, whilst Hughes and Bonham joust with understated brilliance.

So there it is, I've said it.  The best debut by a new rock band in several decades.  The rumors have proven to be sometimes true, sometimes false.  Yes, the band is astounding and the record got not just made, but made startlingly well.  Talk of dissension and tension?  Well, that's essential for great rock and roll, isn't it?

I must thank everyone involved in this project, and for this first glance/listen: Joe Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and producer Kevin Shirley (who I didn't speak of nearly enough in this review), for creating such an amazing piece of music; Roy Weisman and Carl Swann for their cooperation and granted access, as well as Roy's fantastic enthusiasm for Black Country Communion; and Rachel Iverson at J&R, and Erin Podbereski of Jensen Communications for their help.

Very special thanks to Libby Sokolowski, who has graciously assisted me in so many ways, and finally to Glenn Hughes, who has been so wonderfully helpful and generously given me hours of his time and attention.

tony conley

June 11, 2010

All Photos by Libby Sokolowski     

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