Black State Highway's high quality throwback hard rock might have found a place on the charts in 1990 next to The Black Crowes and "Thunderstruck"-era AC/DC.
Black State Highway's debut album sounds like a lost relic from the late '80s. The England-based quintet plays hard rock with a touch of blues and isn't afraid to show off their chops. If they had come in on the wave of grittier, non-hairspray-based rock acts that followed in the wake of the success of Guns N’ Roses, they might have found a place on the charts in 1990 next to the Black Crowes and "Thunderstruck"-era AC/DC. The young band (all members under 25) essentially ignores everything that's happened in rock music since they were born; there are no traces of grunge, alternative rock, or indie pop here. Even the 21st century success of the White Stripes and the Black Keys don't seem to register on Black State Highway's radar (too much blues, not enough metal).
Vocalist Liva Steinberga has a huge singing voice with just enough throaty grit to complement the band's endlessly crunchy guitars. Despite the considerable skill of guitarists Olie Trethaway and Yonnis Crampton and bassist Gordon Duncan, Liva is the star of the show. She commands the listener's attention and the band seems to know it, sticking to their riffs while she's singing and saving the musical pyrotechnics for when she isn't. Lead single "Ain't Got No" demonstrates this technique ably. Based on a three-note riff taken straight from the Grateful Dead/Black Crowes covers of "Hard to Handle", the song goes into its own simple guitar riff when Steinberga comes in on the verse, and the band echoes her melody in the chorus. Even the bridge, where she gets quiet, finds the rest of the band backing off even more before getting really loud for the few seconds where she's not singing.
It's slightly unusual in 2014 to find a rock band that's in service this much to their singer, but the guys of Black State Highway seem unusually aware of just how good Steinberga is, and take their cues from her performances. Even a long, slow rocker like "Broken", which, at 5:20, finds space for a break down/build up instrumental break that runs into a full-fledged guitar solo, keeps the focus on Steinberga. It's a very classic rock approach that works for the band, which sounds old school without sounding like a slavish recreation of the good ol' days.
And it's not like the rest of Black State Highway is just stuck as the backing band for Steinberga. There are plenty of guitar features for Trethaway and Crampton, and their constant riffing drives the band. The group's focus on mostly uptempo rockers gives drummer Harry Bland ample opportunity to show off, and Duncan quietly proves himself to be the band's secret weapon. His basslines are surprisingly melodic in a setting where it would be simple to just constantly mirror the guitar riffs. In the chances where he gets to show off, like the honest-to-God bass feature in the middle of "Trekkers" or the free form intro of "Free", he makes the most of it.
Every single one of the eight tracks on Black State Highway is consistently good, with strong riffs and melodies and a satisfying crunch. If there's a drawback to the band being this consistent, it's that none of these songs really stands out from the others as being great. "Sacrifice" is a touch closer to heavy metal, while opener "Conclusion" has a bit more blues in it, but it all sort of runs together into a blur of solid throwback hard rock. Still, this is a good start for the band, and Steinberga has the makings of a star. Black State Highway should have no trouble finding an audience among 40 and 50-somethings, but it may be a bit tougher to draw fans their own age.