Amidst a rising tide of retro revival, Rival Sons's modern rock triumph must not be forgotten.
Ever since Rival Sons made their loud and brash appearance into the rock scene in 2009 with their single “Before the Fire”, they have been treating fans of the genre to fuzz-laden, riff-driven rock n roll that is heavily reliant upon greats like Kiss, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and so on. However even after their highly anticipated 2014 effort, Great Western Valkyrie, Head Down remains as the band’s best work, and one not to be forgotten.
Released in the fall of 2012, the band’s third full-length is their longest album, clocking in at 56 minutes, and every second of it is pure rock and blues gold. A bit ahead of its time in being after its time, Head Down is a modern rock exemplar.
At this year's Grammys, it was evident that retro is in style, with Alabama Shakes taking best rock band, performances from Alice Cooper, blues revivalist Gary Clark Jr. and tributes to B.B. King, Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie taking center stage, retro is clearly present in the contemporary psyche. In this respect, Rival Sons beat everyone to the punch, but they were also late to the part, releasing their album in a time where it seemed the garage rock revival stage was fading out. Nevertheless, it needs to be seen that Head Down is an album that absolutely cannot be overlooked. No doubt Rival Sons’s best work, it's some of the best modern, classic sounding rock to come out this side of Led Zeppelin's IV.
The album kicks off with a smash, a stadium sized single, “Keep on Swinging”. It gives the listener a proper introduction to the massive bluesy octave-distorted guitars, chugging bass, groovy drums, and singer Jay Buchanan’s crooning voice that challenges listeners to ask if we have a new Paul Stanley or Steven Tyler here.
Speaking of which, Buchanan is the star of this album and he is at his undoubted best. Challenging himself to assume many different roles to fit the song rather than just being a typical rock singer on every one, his voice surprises, pleases and gives each track its own unique dimension. In songs such as “Wild Animal” and “Until the Sun Come Up”, he assumes a Steve Miller vibe so closely resembling the man that it will make you do a double take. Tracks like “You Want To” and “Run from Revelation” find him showing off his range and giving himself the very distinct, coarse rocker cry that every great rock singer must have.
This album also showcases his storytelling ability like any true bluesman. In “The Heist” or “All the Way” he portrays down-on-their-luck characters with money or women. Just as easily, he can pull the reigns off a little to allow the song to breathe. “Manifest Destiny” parts one and two require him to be another instrument in a song where all pieces of the band work together to tell an incredible tale, and the finale track, “True”, finds him serenading a tranquilizing love song to the likes of which we’ve never heard from him, though that is very atypical for Rival Sons’s style. Buchanan is an all-star on this record, shining and contributing heavily with his diverse vocal ranges and styles to give each track a sound unlike that of the one before it.
In addition to the vocals, there is so much to praise on this album. Almost all the tracks tell a story that implore you to listen, like the ominous “Manifest Destiny Pt. 1”, which features a line like “You know we’re dealing with godless men” over and over, making you want to hear the outcome of the upcoming battle between our early ancestors and the Plains tribes. Featuring a four-minute guitar solo, this brooding eight-minute tale of the old American west propels the listener into the more up-tempo raid music of part 2, featuring the personal lyrics, “You know my wife and children had hair so black/Now there’s nothing you can do that will bring them back” and a chorus that promises “We’re takin’ lives at dawn”. Containing hand-clapping, harmonica-backed verses that wail like suffering animals or men in battle, the song promises the listener retribution, complete with a gallop-inducing cry that leads into the guitar solo. However, what you get next is an acoustic reprise of the song “Nava” only to have a heartfelt and peaceful close of the album with the aforementioned finale track, “True”.
Including the bluegrass/country solemnness of mid-album ballad “Jordan”, the swinging riff of “Three Fingers”, and the cymbal-less drumming of “Wild Animal”, the diversity of this album ceases to wear out, and it portrays a rock band that is firing on all cylinders. The bass is present and clear on every track, sounding like Jack Bruce of Cream on more than one occasion. The drums offer endless fills and groovy-ness in the vain of Peter Criss and John Bonham and they give all of this music a very complete sound.
Though an analysis of this album could continue for pages and pages because of its seemingly endless layers of rock n roll musical ability, the best advice for anyone is to just go and listen to this low-radar treasure. Rival Sons have created a piece of work that is complex and simplistic. On some tracks, they challenge the listener to get up and dance while others demand thoughtful reflection of America’s bloody heritage. Head Down is an album that must not be lost amidst the fray of “new retro”, as these guys practically embody the timeless rock n roll spirit.