By Scott Auld
Before the Fire, an amazing new album from rock band The Rival Sons, mixes an honest love for the roots of rock with an intense, modern take on where music can go from here. In many primitive cultures, important ceremonies took place “before the fire”. The Rival Sons are attempting to set rock and roll back on fire.
The first track, Tell me Something, kicks off with duel guitars playing an insistent riff in both channels. Then you are hit with the first vocals on the album, and you can’t help but wonder if the band found the second coming of Ian Astbury. When the chorus hits you, and you don’t have to wait around for it, you are assaulted with a huge sounding harmony of attitude and guitars, making you forget that this is a pure four-piece band.
Jay Buchanan has turned in an amazing collection of powerful, yearning vocals. This seems even more amazing when you learn that Buchanan joined the band after the majority of the album had already been recorded. When guitarist Scott Holiday (TGP’s “fuzzbird”) found Buchanan, there was no way he was going to let him NOT join the band, and they re-recorded the entire album with Buchanan’s strong voice. The instruments were all recorded “before the fire” really got started, when Jay’s joining was the final piece of the puzzle falling into place.
Track two, Lucky Girl, tricks you into thinking you have this band figured out, but this is an album of curveballs. Every step in this journey is followed by another step in a different, yet somehow familiar, direction. The expedition passes through Beatle territority without seeming nostalgic, skirts near The Who without sounding trite, jumps onto the Smithereens’ bus but only to use it as a launch pad for soaring higher into a new brand of modern rock.
Bassist Robin Everhart fills every nook and cranny with tasty, thoughtful parts. Like the late (great) Berry Oakley, Everhart’s bass playing is extremely musical. Everhart knows when to stay low, then slyly pops his head up for a look around, then ducks back down and surprises you again with his murdering groove, locking in with drummer Michael Miley in a way that makes you think they’ve been together for decades.
Each song is an exploration of new sounds and tones, so you can’t escape the feeling that you’re getting a tour of a really nice collection of gear. The aptly titled Memphis Sun explores slide guitar and a driving bluesy feel, but never leaves its pure hard rock sound completely behind. Producer / mixer / songwriting collaborator Dave Cobb lets this track breathe so you never feel cramped by the music’s claustrophobic lyrics.
The Rival Sons’ Zeppelin influence shows with the intro to Pocketful of Stones, but the band only uses this as a reference point, adding their own infusion of energy and strange sounds that takes the band into sonic territory formerly unexplored by rock bands. This album shows that the trio is not afraid to step outside the box, and has no qualms about drifting into the truly trippy. You simply can not get bored listening to this album.
Rival Sons shows their vulnerable side with The Man Who Wasn’t There, then hits you hard with Pleasant Return, made up of sixties psychedelia-meets-Black Crowes, with a very live-feeling arrangement. Holiday says the majority of the album was recorded “as if live” with many arrangement ideas coming to them in the process of recording. This explains why the album does not sound processed or like it came from a factory. This is living, breathing, rock and roll.
The Rival Sons, named after the recurring theme of sibling rivalry that shows up over and over in history and religion, believes that modern rock & roll has become stale and homogenized, and that nobody seems to want to make it fun any more. The sons have made it their mission to change that, and this solid album goes a long way towards reintroducing the quirky, fun, and most of all, surprising, to rock.