Zen Guerrilla's Shadows on the Sun has made me feel old. Imagine Back in Black-era AC/DC covering Stevie Ray Vaughan, blasted through a huge PA system and recorded in good fidelity by an audience member. A perfect blues-metal album for feeling sullen and angry and frustrated - in other words, perfect if you happen to be a rebellious adolescent. But if your voice isn't cracking anymore and gym class is but a faded memory, you may find that you don't have enough angst to favorably absorb Zen Guerrilla's world-pummeling blues for more than a handful of listens.
As Sub Pop labelmates Vue take their cues from ‘60s garage rock, Zen Guerrilla cut their own sharp channel into the well eroded riverbed of souped-up ‘70s blues-rock already cut by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. What distinguishes Zen Guerrilla most from their predecessors is their unrelenting bombast. Shadows on the Sun sustains an incredible pitch of heavy metal-saturated distorted guitars, an aggressive pounding of rhythm, and over-the-top blues screaming.
The record begins with an impressively sustained string of barnburners. There is “Barbed Wire”, a hyperspace Zeppelin-styled blues number that’s a descendant of “We’re Gonna Groove” from Coda. The second track, “Inferno”, (in keeping with the Zeppelin comparisons) is something of a fiercely mutated “Good Times Bad Times”, but all power and no flower. “Staring into Midnite” veers off into a Stevie Ray Vaughan shuffle blues, complete with the Texas twang. Next, “Graffiti Hustle” slows down the tempo but none of the intensity. At this point the program becomes a little fatiguing. But we’re not quite at a break yet.
“Captain Infinity” follows with some Bad Company rock and roll shuffle, but with squeaky post-‘80s ultra-distorted guitar. At track seven, the idiosyncratic “Subway Transmission”, we finally get some relief. A meaty bass riff and ritualistic electronically distorted drums carry us through the deepest breath since the end of the first track, but the respite is to be short lived—“Dirty Mile” follows with the fastest and fiercest modified blues of the record so far.
With the following “Evening Sun” there comes a second breath of fresh air. Marcus Durant sings instead of screams, and shows that he’s equally convincing at both in this relaxing end-of-the-day swinger. Guitarist Rich Millman strums an acoustic guitar and a gritty sounding electric, and lays off the distortion pedal except for the typically aggressive mid-song solo. Then it’s back to the metal shuffle of “5th & Cecil B”, and the quick country-funk blues of “Where’s My Halo?”, which juxtaposes some hand claps and Stones-like backing vocal hoots against the impossibly domineering guitars.
Track 12, “Shadows”, along with “Evening Sun” and “Subway Transmission”, stands out as a much-needed change of pace. There’s some dirty electric slide guitar in the left channel and a rattley acoustic in the right. And, like “Evening Sun”, it conjures an attractive work-weary late afternoon mood. “Zombies & Hobos” travels the same boozy roads as the main thrust of the rest of the record, and the program closes with “Fingers”“, a soulful shuffle blues that, Durant announces, “goes out to Marvin Gaye”. He calls it “Delaware soul; Motown”, but aside from Durant’s soulful singing, there’s nothing “Motown” about Zen Guerrilla. In their promotional materials, the band is said to fuse rock, Motown and gospel, but on the aural evidence of Shadows on the Sun, they do nothing of the sort. They’re a good, super-heavy blues-rock band.
Sorry if the preceding blow by blow was somewhat tedious. Unfortunately, that’s how it is with Shadows on the Sun. The blues-based material is repetitive enough without the added textural sameness that Rich Millman’s loud, louder, loudest guitars enforce (baring the three exceptions mentioned above). Additionally, there’s little melody to differentiate the songs, and the unrelenting intensity not only becomes tiring, but ultimately undercuts the band’s initially shocking power. If you like some texture and variety in your blues rock, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.
// Notes from the Road
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