[22 April 2012]
Firebird; blues-rock power-trio lost in time. The genesis of the group is surprising and even unnerving; guitarist Bill Steer gives up the genre of grindcore after stints in Napalm Death and Carcass, both considered “founding fathers” of the genre. Rather than continuing on in the direction of his former bands, he goes for something drastically different. The reason this is shocking is the insularity of heavy metal music in general and “extreme” genres in particular. More often than not, if a group, or member of a group, alters their sound even slightly, there is a huge fan backlash with accusations of ‘selling out’, turning into ‘pussies’ and ‘betraying’ metal.
But Steer followed his muse, leaving behind the nihilism, hyper-aggression, and let’s be frank, the disturbing obsession with violence inherent in grindcore and founded Firebird with a succession of bassists and drummers (Leo Smee of Cathedral and Ludwig Witt of Spiritual Beggars, respectively, are the rhythm section on these two albums). All of the more polarizing elements of his past groups are removed, the intensity has been dialed down in every sense of the word, and the music emulates the hard rock of days long gone that relied much less on shock and ugliness. The result is an album that fits in well with those of its points of inspiration, the original wave of hard rock groups that appeared in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s such as Deep Purple, Rory Gallagher, James Gang etc. Stuff that wasn’t necessarily heavy enough to be considered ‘metal’ but was nonetheless far more assertive than hippie music or even the blues-rock of the Rolling Stones.
So that’s all well and good; Firebird takes from a specific subsection of rock and roll that is extremely fertile. The problem is that they don’t really do very much with it. The unfortunate truth is that if you have even a passing interest in this genre, or if you are simply a semi-frequent listener of your local classic rock radio station, you have heard these songs. You have heard these riffs, you have heard these beats, you have heard these guitar solos. You have also heard these lyrics before, which tend to deal with the typical mores of early hard rock; bad women, good booze, and being down so long that it looks like up. You’ll notice that these are the same lyrical tropes that have been mined in the blues for as long as the genre has existed. The only place where this isn’t true is on the few spots where the lyrics reference some kind of fantasy world, a la Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” (I’m convinced the only reason this wasn’t another blues cliche is because a great number of blues singers were illiterate and couldn’t read Tolkien, plus “Lord Of The Rings” wasn’t written until after many of them were dead). So basically, Firebird doesn’t just take its cues from their hard rock forefathers, they take everything from them. The production may be a little cleaner, the guitars slightly sweeter, but you’d be completely forgiven for thinking that you just stumbled across a lost Blue Cheer album with this.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being “retro”. Plenty of groups borrow heavily from music of the past. But other bands of this style, such as Red Fang, Orange Goblin, or The Sword have massively updated this sound with respect to all of the music that has happened since the ‘70s. Other bands like Sleep, Kyuss and Fu Manchu have upped the aggression of the music without losing sight of what makes it work. Firebird, meanwhile, completely retreads the music without adding anything new and come off sounding rather dull because of it. If you are a complete virgin when it comes to hard rock, this might be thrilling. For anyone else, it’s just more of the same. Maybe that’s your cup of tea. Me, I want something I haven’t heard before.
Now having said all of this, it doesn’t necessarily make this bad music. The trio are obviously good at what they do. Steer is a technically impressive, if creatively unoriginal (in the context of this band, that is) guitarist, while his rhythm section is solid and appropriately restrained yet powerful. The riffs, being based on good riffs, are likewise good. However, they do far too good a job epitomizing the exact sound of early hard rock (“Stranger To Himself” is actually a cover of a Traffic song); it is textbook hard rock for the most part, especially on the first, self-titled album. Most of the songs pass by unnoticed (“Meantime” and “Raise A Smile” are almost indistinguishable in parts). Only album closer “Through the Fields” leaves an impression, using dynamics and tension to build to a peak and slowly float back down. It is also the softest song on the album and allows the focus to be shifted on Steer’s voice, which shines here, as does his thoughtful solo towards the end.
The second album, Deluxe, is far superior but also mired by the same formulaic approach in places. Where it triumphs is in the songs that deviate slightly from the simple insert-basic-pentatonic-riff-here method of composition and draw from either more traditional blues or heavier music that Steer formerly made. Take a song like “Zoltana”, built around a far more in-your-face riff than the other songs, and deviating through a number of shifts in the rhythmic feel, including a nice little drum break. Likewise, “Hammer Tongs” is propelled by an extremely fierce drum pattern. These two songs are certainly highlights due to the heaviness being cranked up a notch or two. On the other end of the spectrum we have the two final songs on the album, “Sad Man’s Quarter” and the sarcastically titled “Slow Blues”, both of which are very traditionally bluesy in the style of the great Chicago bluesmen like Elmore James or Buddy Guy. The former, with some wonderful slide work, may be the best song on either album. The latter, with a harmonica being substituted as the lead instrument, is a very loose, gritty, and more importantly, fun piece of music. After the monotony of much of the rest of the album I didn’t even notice that there was no guitar on the track. The other standout song on Deluxe is “Miles From Nowhere”, the ‘ballad’ that serves the same function “Through the Fields” did on the first album. It builds and changes, growing into a better song the longer it goes on, shifting from a fingerpicked intro to a raucous, triumphant finish.
Overall, the first album doesn’t come very highly recommended. There is simply too much of the same going on. Listening to the bands that got there first is infinitely more rewarding. Deluxe, however, while being far from a perfect album, has several high points (half the album to be exact). It is thoroughly enjoyable, but far from a revelatory musical experience, if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you just want a decent hard rock album, Deluxe is it. The first album is not.