Sons of Texas' second album is full of swagger and skill, but is crucially lacking in the songwriting department.
Sons of Texas hail from the south Texas border town of McAllen, and their heavy, gritty take on music that stands astride the line between metal and hard rock certainly reflects that. But that grit is about the only indication you'll hear that this quintet grew up just across the river from Mexico. Their influences run much more towards fellow Texas rockers Pantera, with occasional hints of ZZ Top and other acts popping up in their sound. Forged by Fortitude, the band's second album, is full of swagger and skill, but it's crucially lacking in the songwriting department.
Sons of Texas
Forged by Fortitude
(Razor & Tie)
Release Date: 22 Sep 2017
The record starts promisingly enough, with "Buy in to Sell Out". It's a gruff hardcore track featuring punishingly heavy riffs and drumming and a powerful, shouted performance from vocalist Mark Morales. It's heavier and harder than anything I expected going into the record, and the '80s metal-style weedly-weedly guitar solo is a perfect break before the song launches back into its final runs through the chorus.
My surprise continued into the intro of second song "Feed the Need", which begins with a complex, funky, and fast bass solo. Sadly this solo only lasts for six seconds before disappearing entirely into a relatively generic hard rock song. There's a heavy guitar riff here, but it isn't an interesting one, and Morales' throaty singing is solid but his melodies, particularly on the chorus, are neither compelling nor especially catchy. As the song winds down, the bass solo from the beginning briefly shows up again but it's exactly the same and buried under the guitar crunch. By the end of the song, the impression the solo gives is that bassist Nick Villarreal worked up a cool, complicated riff but that it is an outlier for him. It feels like he can play this one particular bit but can't keep that style going for any length of time; there's certainly nothing like it anywhere else on the album. It also seems like the band thought it was a very cool riff but didn't really know how to actually work it into a song, so they just stuck it at the beginning.
The rest of Forged in Fortitude is a lot more like "Feed the Need". Morales is a strong vocalist who splits the difference between the gruff vocals of Pantera's Phil Anselmo and the more melodic style of Avenged Sevenfold's M. Shadows. Except Morales' voice doesn't get thin and strained like Shadows whenever a song calls for higher-pitched singing. Guitarists Jes De Hoyos and Mike Villarreal and drummer Jon Olivarez work well together, with solid, heavy playing. De Hoyos in particular shows great facility for the '80s-style guitar solos, whipping out a series of tuneful, melodic ones in various tracks scattered throughout the album. But all of the band's competence doesn't translate into good songs.
This album is full of satisfyingly crunchy hard rock tracks that don't have any kind of memorable hooks. Take single "Beneath the Riverbend". It has a pounding guitar riff that transitions into a big melodic chorus, and neither sticks with the listener once the song is over. The stickiest part of the song is De Hoyos' solo, but even that doesn't linger because the rest of the track is so middling.
When the band takes a step outside of its comfort zone, odd things happen. "Expedition to Perdition" sounds like the band's take on a punk song, which ends up putting the focus more on Morales' lyrics than usual. So we end up hearing all of the confused metaphors, like the chorus: "Lord, take the wheel / I'm hellbound again / The Devil's pulling me into her den / I need to feel / She took my hand / The Devil's got my idle time again." Morales never gets specific about the type of sin he's committing, so we don't know if it's drugs, masturbation, or something else, and bringing in the various automobile references just confuses the subject further.
Then there's power ballad "Turnin' the Page", which sounds like the band literally listened to the top 10 grunge-era power ballads from the '90s and put bits and pieces together to form their own song. There's a riff from Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush", a vocal delivery out of Seven Mary Three's "Cumbersome", even a bit of acoustic strumming from Oasis' "Wonderwall." And closer "Slam With the Lights On", a sleazy ode to sex with the lights on, just uses the riff from ZZ Top's "La Grange" before throwing heavy guitars on top of it. Sons of Texas are far from the only band to ever rip off "La Grange", but it's blatant enough here that the band could probably pass it off as a loving homage and not try to be sneaky about it.
Forged by Fortitude is a frustrating record because it feels like Sons of Texas are within spitting distance of being a good band. It's telling that the best track on the album is the stripped-down hardcore song "Buy in to Sell Out", because you don't need a catchy guitar riff or melodic vocal to make a good hardcore song. Their current skill level and overall competence is probably enough to give them a career as a mid-level band, being second on the bill in theater shows or headlining club gigs without ever quite making the step up. But if Sons of Texas can find a way to really put their own spin on hard rock or just do a better job of making the established style more memorable, they can be a real powerhouse.