Thursday, September 13, 2012

Black Country Communion - Afterglow: Is This To End, Or Just Begin?

There's no point in acting as if there isn't an 800 pound gorilla in the corner. Black Country Communion's third album, Afterglow, is having a rough birth - with rumors rife and tension thick, the band's survival has been questioned recently by many. It's evident that the band's focal points, Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa have some issues that, while best left in back rooms, has spilled out into the arena. I know both fellows just well enough to say that I like and respect them both a great deal, but I don't know what their beef is - all I know is that it's getting in the way of some great music. Maybe the best either has yet made.

Afterglow is a huge record. It sounds like there's a war going on, and much of the fighting is happening beyond sight. It rages with an unbridled passion unseen on the first two Black Country releases, and this passion adds immensely to the music. Glenn Hughes has made the statement of a career - his voice is more powerful and under control than ever, his phrasing shakes, quivers, screams, and howls with rightful indignation. He's at war, but I'm not sure with whom or what. His lyrics are as amazing, and they tell tales that could be heard in a variety of interpretations. Joe Bonamassa hits his strings like Ali hitting Sonny Liston - wicked accuracy and vicious intent that can't be hid. These two titans are like a couple of super heroes fighting a war set up by some unseen bad guy - it sure isn't the music that's a problem, and whatever stands between them is not worth killing the music over. The damage is done, the question is - what survives in the afterglow?

As soon as Big Train kicks in, it's clear that this is a very different Black Country Communion. This band sounds like Deep Purple once did - you have a band in crisis, and it sounds dangerous, like great rock and roll often does. Derek Sherinian is all over this, like a layer of molten lava. Kevin Shirley has him sitting high up on the mountain, and it sounds great. Hughes is singing like he's rock and roll's last living disciple, and playing his bass like he's leading an army with it. Jason Bonham is hitting every beat as if his soul depended on it. I've never heard Joe Bonamassa ride a wah pedal so hard as he does on his solo - it sounds like the guy's spitting out shards of Ritchie Blackmore's shattered nightmares.

"This Is Your Time, it's in your hands,
This Is Your Time, to make your stand."

There's a battle being fought, but it's too dark to see how it began, or who's winning. This Is Your Time is a tune that Jason Bonham brought in, and Bonamassa is calling it his favorite cut on the record. It comes across as a prayer, or sermon from Hughes. With Afterglow, Glenn Hughes has finally made his great rock album. He's been known as "The Voice of Rock" for years, but never has he reached quite this high. Of course, he's always sang with a passion and power that not everyone can understand, or appreciate - to those who would say his vocals are histrionic affectations, I say you just don't know the guy. He's the purest English rock singer since Stevie Marriott, and I have long been of the opinion that he has little say about the startling instrument that speaks through his soul. He could no more change his style, than you could change the color of your eyes. His performance on This Is Your Time is on par, and at the level of any great vocal performance in the annals of rock. He's singing better than ever - his Stevie Wonder informed vibrato is dead on point, and his every word, his every utterance is felt as much as heard.

Joe Bonamassa has for now left behind his tendency to play nice, and I'm guessing he never spent a session attacking his strings so fiercely - the guy sounds pissed, and in this situation it sounds just  right. His solo on This Is Your Time shows his mean side, and we get some seriously satisfying savagery out of the usually chivalrous gentleman. Well played, sir.

Midnight Sun jumps out, and it sounds like The Who and Iron Maiden fighting it out in a seedy London back alley. Jason Bonham's drumming is astounding - his fills are fantastically musical, and when Bonamassa takes his solo, you have Hughes and Bonham taking flight just as high. It's dizzying and only Sherinian keeps them out of the path of Icarus, and for those who always wondered what The Who would have sounded like if Pete were a shredder - look no further than this barnburner.

BCC finally sounds like a full fledged, dye in the wool band on the cut Confessor, as opposed to a 'supergroup.' You can tell they've done some playing together, and on this record they gel better than ever. Sherinian and Bonamassa finally get their Jon/Ritchie thang on, and when they do, they get it right - good jousts between guitarists and organists are too rare these days, and this satisfies an appetite that has been ignored for too long. Great stuff. Hughes's lyrics demand a close listen, but I'll let you form your own opinions as to his intent.

The freak flag is out and waving on Cry Freedom, children. Bonamassa and Hughes throw lines back and forth on the verses like they're red hot coals, and the effect is terribly powerful. Hurricane BCC is blowing in the wind. Vocally, this album is a huge leap forward for the band - there are cool background parts, heavenly harmonies, where previously we've had less than we may have liked. Hughes takes a groovy bass solo after Bonamassa has had his solo say, a solo in which Joe sounds like a true bluesman. I'd love to know what's going through the mind that's spitting out these licks. This is dripping with emotions, and they do not appear to be simple emotions at that. Maybe they should have called this record, "Kid Gloves Come Off."

Afterglow is Black Country rock at it's best - this number has the spirit of Led Zeppelin all over it. Sherinian does the best John Paul Jones I've ever heard. His orchestrations are superb - an homage, but an homage with tremendous musical value of its own. Hughes's vocal performance is as good as I've heard in many, many years. How many '70s power singers are currently singing their best work? There's a midsection interlude here that sees the band go straight prog rock for a moment, and I hope with all my being that we're just hearing these guys get warmed up. This album shows glimpses of a BCC we've only hoped for  - one that goes from supergroup to super group. As in a true classic. There is seeming little the band can't do, and the mind boggles to imagine what could happen if they can find a way to put the music first.

For his solo on Afterglow, Bonamassa puts on an awesome display of post Satriani/Vai shredding, and one hopes these fellows can see  the forest through the trees. Joe has shown yet another side of his musicality with this record, and I must say, it fits him well.

A hippie dippy piece of semi-psychedelic folk come blues called Dandelion is up after the title track, and it simply swings. Did I just hear a brief tribute to Rush? Hahaha, I'll be damned if they didn't and they nailed it! Hughes's bass playing is off the hook on this album - this is what rock and roll bass playing should sound like it. John Entwistle is smiling up in heaven.

The Circle is the first cut on the album that sounds like it could have come from BCC's earlier tracks. This is the songwriting side of Hughes that shone so brightly, though briefly in the days of Hughes/Thrall - his growth as a writer on this record is very impressive. I do wish Bonamassa sang more on this track - it almost cries out for his voice at certain points. Opportunity missed, for now. This is a tune that just keeps building and building. I always love when Joe kicks in the time based effects and gets his big jungle cat, uni-vibe voice up and running. If I didn't know better, I'd think he may have watched Michael Schenker from the wings once or twice, but I could be wrong. No, I just listened again, and his solo is very Germanic and majestic. Joe, I love your solo act, but you're goddamned good at this band thing. This sounds so much like an ending that it may just be a new beginning.

Common Man cops some serious old school moves - this puts me in mind of Paul Rodgers fronting The Gap Band. The band trades fours in spectacular fashion before Sherinian tears off a great solo - it's not chop heavy, but it is sonic perfection. Fits like a glove. There's even a clavinet calliope section that is straight up, shit hot funk/rock. Another startling new direction, and they pull it off brilliantly.  This sounds like they finally got their groove on as a band, and are playing together as a team.

The Giver - another Hughes sermon delivered at the alter of the church of rock. I'd love to hear Glenn's tracks in solo mode - just straight bass and vocals. Many will hear this and go straight to the unconscious Plant vibe that comes with growing up in the hills of the Black Country, but I'm hearing one amazing performance - no matter how it is sliced. Joe Bonamassa's solo sounds like a swordsman throwing down a gauntlet. Wait until you hear the 12 string/vocal outro:

"Here Comes The Giver,
He will be free,
Here Comes The Giver,
He will be free."

Wow. Powerful stuff.

The Crawl suggests that if this thing with Bonamassa doesn't work out, maybe Hughes should bring in Jimmy Page - of course, that's some presumptuous trash to be talking on many fronts, but damn. Bonamassa actually does a fantastic Page here - not so much in what he plays, but rather his artful orchestrations. This is Black Country rock. Communion? Well, maybe some dissension and tension is good for a marriage from time to time. These two jousters are going toe to toe, and I'm declaring this one a draw. Afterglow is an album of tremendously powerful rock - when Glenn told me it was his most epic work, he wasn't kidding. Bonamassa and Sherinian trade fours again on this cut, and it seems they are just starting to get good at it. The possibilities suggested by this album boggle the mind. This album is a serious listen - it doesn't suffer fools, and it may not walk under it's own weight. Let's hope for the state of the music, it does.

Joe and Glenn, I don't know what your issues are - I don't want to know what your issues are. I just hope that whatever they may be that somehow the music may live through it. Together, you have a musical chemistry that is near unheard of in these times, and I hope your musical partnership can continue.

Hats off to super producer Kevin Shirley - you have done an amazing job in keeping this ship floating, and getting this record done. The proof is in the product, and this record sounds amazing. Congratulations and great thanks to all.

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