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Welsh Rockers Hark Back to American '70's Sounds
By Alexander C. Kafka
Rating: 3 of 5
"She’s All Natural"
"Down to the River"
"Truth From Fable"
"A Horse Called Freedom"
"Rolls on Through"
"March of the Buffalo"
"Ain’t No Other"
"Keep on Runnin’"
From South Wales comes wailin’ a retro outfit inspired by '70's blues- and Southern rock. Brothers, singer Andrew Hunt and drummer Gareth Hunt, along with guitarist Jonny Williams and bassist Darren King, celebrate the primal energies of Free, Deep Purple, Skynyrd, and Zeppelin, but now and then shift into fifth gear with a turbo-grunge charge, or a Black Crowes-y up-tempo swagger. Formed just a couple years ago, the group has superb ensemble, instrumental chops, clean vocals, and infectious energy that are well represented on this, their debut, eponymously named, and self-produced album. Sometimes, though, their sound gets a little monotonous, making us long for a slow tune and some acoustic changeups.
“She’s All Natural” is a love fete: “I never knew we’d be walking down a road that’s so divine...She’s all natural, organic and factual!” Over incorrigible freight-train drumming, two lines of guitar licks entice each other into a hard-charging solo, and the lead vocals are contoured with some nice harmonious overdubs.
From an acoustic, folksy intro, “Down to the River” oozes into a swampy, Skynyrdy realm of sins assuaged by the restorative river, mountain, wind--all illuminated by an otherwordly light show of fireflies. Slightly distorted lead vocals are again harmonized, and an instrumental bridge erupts into a Celtic-singed guitar solo, easing into a strong a capella finish.
Atmospheric grungy, pugilistic hooks open “Truth From Fable,” with guitar-doubled vocal harmony enhancing angry refrains. A blistering guitar solo and gunshot drum-guitar triplet rhythms bring the last chorus home in a huff. A restless search for truth, the song asks, “Waiting for this light to shine / There’s nothing else that I can find / Can you tell me truth from fable?”
A stutter-funky “Light Your Candle” style vocal propels us into “A Horse Called Freedom.” This isn’t my favorite track, in part because of the somewhat tired lyrics and imagery (“Dance under moonlight, by the water’s edge /...Let’s get it together”). The slow head banger is a little repetitive, and even the guitar solo, with a touch of wah, feels sluggish.
“Rolls on Through” has a means-business grind-ahead opening in keeping with its message: “You’ve gotta turn the page, no more time for your mistakes.” Again, though, the refrains get old and though one must indeed “keep on keepin’ on...Gotta keep on pushin’ on,” it would be easier to do so with some more original, inspiring lyrics. Still, I like the take-no-prisoners guitar rampage in the middle leading to that vocal with tom-heavy percussion that rolls on through to the end. And I can imagine this tune is serious jam-bait when it’s done live.
“The March of the Buffalo” is a hi-hat-heavy stage-stomper urging us to cowboy up and “take some time to make some sense of what they say … raise the flag to stake a claim.”
Another soul wanderer (“you search for truths that seem unreal”), but in a feverish mode, “Ain’t No Other” features churning guitar over restless pulsing bass, pausing to rev its engine, then screaming into a full-boil guitar tear at the end.
Fab face-planting chords alternate with finger-scamper riffs and some high picking in “Keep on Runnin.” The mayhem, though, cloaks a bittersweet sentiment: “Autumn leaves come down, like your love that just got lost, somewhere on the wind.”
The woman who brought typhus to America inspired the band to write “Typhoid Mary.” The track has a funky-blues vibe and some refreshingly weird hopscotching rhythm shifts and breaks. The jolts of syncopation seem to inspire in Williams a particularly Stevie Ray Vaughan-feeling guitar confidence.
The album closes with a high-spirited nod to “Ol’ Duke,” the band’s “second home,” says Andrew. He explains that “it's the pub we've all gone to since we were old enough to drink. It's an old school dirty rock and roll bar. … We rehearse here and the majority of the debut album was written in the basement. We are just paying homage to the good times we have had there over the years.”
For all their obvious musicianship, this album’s strength is also its Achilles’ heel--its music is a first-rate homage to some key acts of 40 years ago, but while the band’s steeped from sound to hairstyle in the 70's, these players are just too good to leave it at that. That was then and this is now, and more problematic than the occasionally hackneyed lyrics, the album lacks variety.
It generally stays in its mid- to up-tempo, single-dynamic, boisterous range. In terms of emotion and pace, it cries out for a ballad or two. And while “Down to the River” teases us with that little acoustic guitar, the album could have used more instrumental textures along those lines.
In explaining the band’s name, Andrew writes: “Myself and Jonny used to sit on the mountainside overlooking Swansea Bay, where he lives. We would jam on some blues classics and we started writing some of our own stuff too and everything gained momentum from there. Jonny initially came up with the name and for us it represents the free spirit of all that's good in the natural world. Mystical, the great wide open and positive vibes.”
Sweet, but while we’re hearing some of that mysticism, and glimpsing it in the lyrics, for this good band to head toward great, they need to lower those cool aviator shades now and then and reveal more of their personality or personalities (song authorship is credited to the band as a whole). They need to bare the odd vulnerability, dream, nightmare, and, maybe in keeping with their '70's sources, some hints of strangeness and funk, both musically and in more specific and less derivative lyrical imagery.
It’s there, right? Have a listen and tell me if you don’t hear all that lurking too, waiting for some guest producers, and cameo keyboard, synth, and acoustic string instrumentalists, to help push the boundaries.
But don’t get me wrong, this is an album to enjoy and a group to watch carefully. They’ve more than proven their ability. Now it’s time to explore their versatility.