A common misconception about modern hard rock is that it’s all the sort of simplified, dumbed-down fare that becomes a mainstay on rock radio. The truth is those beliefs are only there because of what’s on the radio; there’s a lot out there that doesn’t follow a rigid conventional formula, the stuff that’s deemed “too weird” to really drum up much swell beneath it, and thus becomes all the more deserving of it. Fire Red Empress are one such band, keeping traditional hard rock in eyeshot but with thicker strains of blues-rock, stoner rock and even bits and pieces of hardcore strewn around for a fuller, meatier sound, the sort of sound that actually works with complexity instead of veering around it.
That can also be a double-edged sword too, and Black Morphine as an album feels like a band stumbling headlong into that realisation without really noticing. It’s definitely a heavier, more brazenly experimental album, but Fire Red Empress find themselves becoming weighed down too often, and while Black Morphine is fairly enjoyable overall, it can be one serious drag to get through in one sitting.
At least in terms of the pure fundamentals of their sound, there’s a lot this Anglo-French group get right, particularly when it comes to power. The obvious credit is this department is vocalist Jennifer Diehl, who hits her stride early on and shows some remarkable versatility throughout. There’s a clear influence from Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale that shines through on a track like Dead Nature, but the softer opening to Under The Barren Light has a lot of poignancy to it, and Giants is even further removed again, resting on a wiry, electrically-charged guitar line and Diehl’s unrefined shrieks, none of which are that far away from a Marmozets tracks. Instrumentally this rock-solid foundation remains as a constant as well, with the thick, sunburnt stoner-rock of Dead Nature being an ideal opener, The Little Death serving as the soaring mid-album power-ballad that really captures that essence well, and a suitably Faustian darkness embedded within both parts of the closing Maldoror. In terms of heavy hard rock that’s not overshadowed by gimmicks that feel too intrusive, Black Morphine has a lot more variety and inspiration that a lot of bands in this vein, and Fire Red Empress do tailor it well to meet their needs.
But there’s also a limit, and it feels as though Fire Red Empress don’t know that they’re crossing it until it’s too late. That’s mainly due to how much of this album feels the need to stretch itself out when it doesn’t need to, especially when that can both mitigate the overall enjoyment, and just lead to an album that can’t justify its own length. The fact that so many of these tracks either hover around or outright cross the five minute mark speaks volumes about where Fire Red Empress want to take Black Morphine, but when so much of that can’t be seen as anything more than filler, it leads to an album that’s bloated and unwieldy for no good reason. Tracks like Half Bird Half Beetle Half Man and Dear Mister may possess that instrumental tone that’s something of a draw on its own, but they don’t do anything memorable with it, and the minute-long interlude of Seven just feels like the mid-section of another song spliced into the tracklisting as its own track to bulk it up and nothing else. For as indisputably talented as Fire Red Empress are as musicians and composers, Black Morphine doesn’t have many actual songs to show that in a positive light, and can be a chore to get through on more than a couple of occasions.
Still, that compositional skill does limit how critically Black Morphine can be judged; if this was a more basic album instrumentally it would be far more eligible for a thrashing, but this can at least be an interesting listen, even if that doesn’t always stick. Primarily, this feels like a band still finding their feet more than anything, testing the waters to see what they can actually do before applying it for the best results. With Fire Red Empress, they can certainly do a lot successfully, and that just needs tightening up to do it justice in a way that this album largely doesn’t do.
For fans of: Halestorm, Kyuss, Queens Of The Stone Age
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Black Morphine’ by Fire Red Empress is released on 20th October on Prolarian Records.