Blues-rock, as a movement, is continuing to make more and more headway in the contemporary music scene today. The success of Black Keys’ El Camino last year, coupled with the band selling out Madison Square Gardens in 15 minutes, serve as a rousing reminder that the sideburns, toiling guitars and nostalgic constructions on the foundations laid by the likes of Free and Zeppelin are steaming towards the forefront of the rock scene in a convoy of VW hippie vans! Rival Sons continue this trend in truly fantastic style, encapsulating genres through generations in truly ostentatious fashion, consummately mirroring their on stage looks in the process. Head Down is an exhilarating listen with more blues than Eiffel 65’s debut single, sitting comfortably on a pedestal way above the majority of other modern rock albums released in 2012.
The album is almost like the result of a leading construction tycoon taking the blueprint that was 2011’s major-label debut Pressure and Time. The tycoon has studied the blueprint carefully before making meticulous alterations to it, then returning it to the band in the shape of Head Down; the result being that the album is seamless, with a sound that remains fresh for longer than its predecessor. Head Down wastes no time hooking the listener, with opening track Keep on Swinging immediately getting the head nodding and the foot tapping. The sensationally bluesy riff that is greeted by laboured, lethargic drums is a perfect tonic to guitarist Scott Holiday’s onstage look, which is, to put it simply, cool. Upon hearing this jam, you’d picture a facial hair-clad, sunglass-donning axe man jamming in his own self-indulgence. Holiday is exactly this, concocting a potion from the cores of the Black Keys, White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to make a blues-rock cocktail, with Jay Buchanan’s vocals garnishing the perfectly meshed sound as extravagantly as any Hawaiian beach bar could.
The rock reverses into a brash beat and the head continues to nod to second track Wild Animal. A slight, almost fitting whiff of cheese is complimented admirably by Buchanan’s more caressing vocals, showing the first signs within Head Down of his versatility and range. Snippets of jams from Holiday start to bring together and toast rock music since the prominence of The Who and The Black Crowes, and place a vivid image of an overly excited Holiday in the studio, letting off steam in the form of electric bursts from his weapon of choice. You Want To and Until the Sun Comes keep the convoy of VW vans advancing forward, utilising all of their brake horsepower. The chorus of the former consists of Buchanan passionately exerting I’m so sorry / this time I mean it, giving an insolent vibe that in fact he is not sorry, nor does he mean it, mirroring the confidence they have in themselves as a band in a musical capacity. However, Rival Sons without doubt get away with this insolence and self-indulgence by delving into a beautiful bridge, ridden with soul and bass, building anticipation to the next riff in astute fashion. Radio-bait Until the Sun Comes further showcases the ability of Holiday to thrash out fresh sounding, solid riffs without any problem what so ever, and shows more of Buchanan’s strength and versatility as a vocalist. Ideal, almost perfect chord progressions and guitar effects are present in abundance and typify the tightness of Rival Sons as a band, and create fast-moving aural kaleidoscopes that enchant a listener with an infectious energy and an indefinite use by date.
Although Head Down is not strictly a new release (it hit the shelves 2 months ago in September 2012), it still sounds as fresh and as exhilarating as it did first listen. The album is a refined progression from their first full length effort, Pressure and Time, with the band’s amalgamation of blues, rock and soul accentuated further as a consequence of excellent production; the result of this being that the band are underscored more as an advancing unit. The more dovetail sound shown in comparison to Pressure and Time allows Jay Buchanan’s vocals to be showboated even more efficiently. With the range of Brandon Boyd and the soul of Otis Redding, the eccentrically attired frontman really is superb and is, from the evidence of Head Down, one of the most astute exponents of the voice as an instrument I have heard since an Eddie Vedder or a Chris Cornell. He really is that good.
As far as album highlights go, even within such a strong record, it’s easy to pinpoint Run From Revelation and Jordan, tracks 5 and 6 respectively. These tracks put the opening 4 in total perspective without deviating from the continuity maintained throughout Head Down. Run From Revelation is just pure, unadulterated blues. A lovechild of Rubber Factory and Elephant, with Jack White a proud Godfather. You’ll be nodding your head to a different tempo whilst losing yourself in the superhuman strength of Buchanan’s vocals, before being pampered to the beautifully beautiful Jordan. The debut of an acoustic guitar on the album strums an utterly gorgeous chord progression, and is a match made in heaven for a tear-inducing performance from Buchanan, who by track 6 I am running out of superlatives for. This track is a telling example of the refining the band has undertaken since Pressure and Time, and the subtle interactions between Holiday’s acoustic and electric inputs to the track underline the cohesion of the chemistry of the band. The urgency of the chorus conveys a myriad of yearning and the recognition of the necessity to carry on, and the fact that the second Ray Lamontagne-esque verse is just as emotive as the first is testament to the strength of the songwriting. Jordan builds upon what Head Down has offered before it to amalgamate generations of genres, and pay homage to rock music in essence.
Head Down really is as good as I’m portraying it to be and I cannot recommend enough that you get yourself a copy of it. The closing of the album is as strong as the rest, with the tranquil, entirely acoustic Nava giving Buchanan a much needed breather whilst further showcasing Holiday’s versatility, setting the scene for the albums finale; Manifest Destiny parts 1 and 2. This 2 part, 13-minute aural pilgrimage is an epic, ever-changing rock doublet; another glitzy cocktail with so many great bands as its core ingredients. Despite this bringing together of so much that has been good before it, Rival Sons still manage to portray a sharp originality, and showcase their full repertoire of styles and effects on this perfectly suitable closing. Final track True acts as an ending to Manifest Destiny much like Nava acts as a start, following on from Nava where it left off, adding vocals to the initial instrumental and closing the album in a thoroughly fitting fashion.
In Head Down, Rival Sons have concocted an almost flawless album that will make you wonder where the last hour went. It is a celebration of everything that has been good in rock music for the last 4 decades, with a modern, original cutting edge. Buchanan’s vocals are sensational and are a shining example that the voice is a musical instrument first and foremost, whilst the glamour and flamboyance manages to channel Jim Morrison from the grave, as opposed to generating an intoxicating dose of cheese. Blues rock is definitely on the rampage, but can Rival Sons follow up this album? The chemistry displayed throughout Head Down shows that this LA 4-piece have all the dynamism required to do so, and I for one am intrigued to hear the next instalment. Head Down scores a fully deserved 90%!