Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Black Country Communion 2 - The Confirmation

Black Country Communion is currently the best classic hard rock band on the planet. The band's second album, simply titled 2, is significantly better than their eponymous debut, and I believe I called that disc, "the best debut record by a hard rock band in the last 20 years." The nice thing is that I am right.

Glenn Hughes has risen from the ashes, and in the process built an amazing band which now possesses enough new material to headline their first tour, which begins next week. BCC is a band comprised of four of the best players in the world, but make no mistake, Field Commander Hughes is leading the charge on this one. He wrote most of this record, sings the lion's share of the tunes, and has made the record of the year.

I really hope this does not greatly aggrieve the fans of Joe Bonamassa. Joe has just finished a solo tour promoting the best record of his career, and his playing on this LP, as it is on Dust Bowl, truly amazing. He is becoming more of his own man with each release, and thus continues his ascent. Joe's fans are rather rabid in their defense of all things Bonamassa, to the point that I feel this paragraph necessary. He's growing, and I really hope his fans see not just his love of the hard rock genre, but also the emergence of a unique voice that is straddling the lines between blues, rock, and what I am guessing is a new outlook at life itself from our young guitar hero. This trip is bigger than Glenn Hughes or Joe Bonamassa, though.

Jason Bonham, I have never envied the path you walk. You follow in the footsteps of the greatest hard rock drummer in history, and whose imprint on rock is almost immeasurable. Kevin Shirley recorded the drums on this record as nakedly as possible from a modern production standpoint. No gates, no samples, just live drums. You far exceed my expectations, which were not small. Your playing on the first album was tremendous, but nothing quite like your performance here. Where the first record was technically incredible, this time out you are more subtle, more musical, and it is obvious that you brought much more influence, and many more ideas to the table this time out.

Keyboardist Derek Sherinian is all over this record, much more to the forefront, and fans will now understand what all the hub-bub is about. Black Country Communion's debut showed little of Sherinian's brilliant playing and arranging skills, but you must understand that that record was recorded in a matter of days, and by a band which hadn't worked together previously - hence the lack of more integrated or complex keyboard arrangements. Not so on 2. Sherinian is heavily featured on every cut and solos mightily on several tracks which I will discuss in greater detail shortly.

Black Country Communion is a four piece band with a fifth member. Producer Kevin Shirley literally started the band, and has been an integral part of every move the band has thus far made. Shirley shares eight co-writing credits on this album, close to what George Martin should have received from The Beatles. Every interview I have read by the group, or the producer talks of blood being spilled, and the murder of many of every member's creative darlings. These are not small egos we are dealing with here, these are four of the most recorded musicians in their field, and a producer who has mixed, mastered, and engineered Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Iron Maiden, and Journey. Opinions are bound to be strong when espoused by such pros, and Shirley has succeeded in making this sound like a pure act of synergy. He is unquestionably the best hard rock producer working.

As I waited patiently for the delivery of the record to my doorstep, I wondered what my reaction would be upon the first listen. Glenn Hughes has repeatedly stated that this was the one. He is tremendously proud, enthusiastic, and vocal about the amount of time, energy, love, and passion he put into its writing. Still, I wondered how it would compare to the first - would it rise to that very high standard, and match the magic the band created on their first sojourn?

I'm a little embarrassed to have doubted the irrepressible Mr. Hughes. He is a man who is truly walking the walk. No matter how much he pontificates, his performances are still leaving his words in the dust. He is in tremendous voice, his bass playing is spectacular throughout, and his writing keeps getting better and better.

The Outsider kicks it off, and once again a hard charging riff rifles in another great record. Hughes is indeed The Messenger, maybe the last real rock star, or maybe even the first new rock star of the second chapter. He's taken to fully assuming responsibility for his words - he's singing purely in the first person, and it shows in a new born sense that he is telling his story, singing his song. Joe Bonamassa has brought a new voice to the realm of rock riffery. His playing throughout is perfect. Busy, but not obtrusive - he and Hughes are flying down the highway with an amazing drum escort. What I wasn't expecting was the hellacious guitar/keyboard dual in the song's solo section. The pair trade eights, and each pass gets hotter and hotter, when they finally meet in the middle for some unison dueling. It's playing that is reminiscent of the days when Gary Moore faced off with Don Airey. Hughes then takes charge with a throbbing bass line, and Bonham joins in to bring in the final chorus. Wow, what a beginning.

Next up is a sound the likes of which I have not heard since the days when the name Aerosmith still meant something. The Man In The Middle is wonderful. Hughes is singing about a topic which he may know better than anyone, the dangerous path of rock fame, and the peril it holds. Hughes' lyrics have never been this concise, or this close to home, and it makes a huge difference. The passion he brings to the lovely b-section is awe inspiring and ultra melodic - rock ear Nirvana.

Joe Bonamassa brings one to the table next, The Fight For Hadrian's Wall, and it is a further progression of the songwriting skills he has worked so hard to develop. From a Zeppelin-esque intro, the six stringer shows his ever growing vocal talents, and his cohorts provide him with a backing track that is sublime - especially Bonham's extremely creative, and inspired kit work. The drummer is subtle and supportive throughout, bouncing between rhythmic fills and powerful drive. Bonamassa is in great voice, and I can hear the Paul Rodgers comparisons already.

Hughes then takes back the wheel, and Save Me  sounds like it came from a Led Zeppelin rehearsal, which is actually where the original idea was birthed. The riff is supplied by Jason Bonham, salvaged from the aborted attempt at a Zep reunion. For those who will charge the band with coming too close to the spirit and sounds of   Zeppelin and Deep Purple, I can only remind them that this is natural - Bonham is Bonham, Hughes was a huge part of Purple, and Shirley certainly spent a lot of time and energy working with Jimmy Page. I see this more as a logical progression.

Bonamassa's guitar playing is continuing to improve - hard for some to swallow, but Joe is ever growing, and evolving into a more distinctive, and recognizable stylist. I am hearing Joe, and less of his influences with every record he makes. He sounds more like the guitarist in a great band than the hot hired hand that he sounds like on the band's debut - as if he's less concerned with rock histrionics and more concerned with the compositions and his place within them. His playing has never been short of technical wizardry, but now he sounds more like he belongs to the music, and the music belongs to him.

Glenn Hughes wrote Smokestack Woman for Bonamassa to sing, but the guitarist kicked it back to Hughes, who again is startling with his passion, and honesty, as he sings, "it serves me right to suffer, I live in sin." This album may be Hughes's grand confession, prayer, and message of redemption. He's just released his autobiography, and now he seems to be singing it. We've spoken a good deal about his legendary addiction and recovery, and I know of no one who has more completely recovered, and been more totally reborn. At nearly 60, Hughes is in full possession of his tremendous talent and gifts, and is perhaps more driven than any musician I can name.

Faithless is perhaps the most unique tune on the record. This song crosses many roads, and truly sounds like nothing but Black Country Communion. The interplay between the four is inspired, as each member shines gloriously, and in synch. Bonham's drumming has me smiling a huge smile as he explodes in fury, then backs off the accelerator as Bonamassa uncorks the solo of a lifetime - this is knocking at the door of true greatness. He runs the gamut of his vocabulary, and does it in a way that never appears to serve anything but the song. Sherinian is also wonderfully cinematic here, taking this to epic territory.

"I'll cut to the chase. And I've told Joe how I feel about this song. It brings me to tears." That's what Glenn Hughes says about An Ordinary Son, Bonamassa's next turn at singing, and fronting this mighty machine. Once again, we see a writer writing about his inner being, and again we are better for getting to experience this offering. It's not just growth as a singer, writer, and guitarist we are hearing, but perhaps a spiritual awakening dawning upon our young guitar hero. This is very close to Bonamassa's solo song style, but the band is more explosive than on Joe's solo records. Joe's solo band is a great band, but I am not certain they have ever been unleashed like this bunch.

I Can See Your Spirit returns the band to full throttle riff machine, and this is gonna explode when they play it live. The sound of Hughes and Bonamassa playing in unison is a glorious sound, and when Bonamassa goes into Guitar God mode, Hughes plays some acrobatic bass to support his young charge. Next, we have Sherinian attacking his Hammond B3 with dexterity and daring. Yeah, this is gonna flat out rock some theaters.

An ultra-melodic blues tune follows, and one wonders how big the smile is on Gary Moore's face up there in heaven. While this swims in the same sea as Gary's blues, it brings the Hughes stamp of sophistication to the awesome chord changes (maybe a bit Beatle-ish even?), and Bonamassa owns it on this one. He plays from his heart in a way I have not previously detected. Little Secret is indeed, "a storm on the rise."

Hughes revisits his funky past with Crossfire, a sophisticated mid-tempo rocker that features silky smooth vocals, and some more great, and unexpected changes. I'm amazed at how much these guys listen  - what I mean is that you have four virtuosos who never step on one another, instead, they often play their coolest licks under another person's solo. Hughes is an astoundingly solid and inventive bassist, a fact sometimes overshadowed by his amazing vocal talents. He's all over this record with a huge tone, and great chops.

Cold brings the record to its conclusion, and it does so in a most sensational form. This takes me straight back to the great Deep Purple album, Stormbringer, a record that may not have pleased one Ritchie Blackmore, but I found to be an incredible display of instrumental chops and emotion. In the face of Glenn Hughes's tremendous success and activity, it is easy to forget the loss of friends he has suffered, and the price he has paid for his excesses in his past. He has completed this section of the circle - claiming his right to his talent and drive, without the misery of addiction, and plague. He has written, played, and led an incredible band to its next level.

Had this record been recorded and released just after the breakup of Deep Purple, it would have made Black Country Communion one of the world's biggest bands. I see no reason why that result should not occur today.

Black Country Communion 2 is a great record by any score-sheet. This band and their producer have done what I wasn't sure they would, or could - they have literally blown away the record I wrote of so glowingly a year ago. The band starts its first US tour in just days - they are in rehearsal as I type. I will be seeing them in Indianapolis in eight days. I am expecting to be amazed. I roundly, and soundly congratulate Joe Bonamassa, Kevin Shirley, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and especially Glenn Hughes on the creation of a great band, and another great record.

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