When Greta Van Fleet came along, you could practically hear the sigh of relief breathed by Rival Sons. Finally, the band who were once the omnipresent butt of all jokes surrounding revival rock’s lack of ideas now had the weight taken off their shoulders by a younger, somehow even more derivative model, and could be content with skulking away in the shadows undetected. And yet, that should’ve been the case all along, as while Rival Sons aren’t a great band by any stretch, and deserve as much flak as any band so unashamedly cribbing from classic rock to get their attention, they’re nothing more than a cog in the machine. They’re a considerably bigger cog that so many others, that much is true, but over the course of five albums of billowing, hairy-chested blues-rock, nothing that they’ve done is as offensively bad as so many claim it to be. And sure, it might be rather hypocritical to defend them for essentially the exact same thing that Greta Van Fleet have regularly been chastised for, but while their identity is nowhere near tantamount to their retro pandering, it’s still an identity.
Thus, that makes it a bit easier to talk about Feral Roots as an album; at this point, Rival Sons’ longer career provides a more detailled context to slot this sixth effort in. And maybe it’s just the dearth of quality within retro-rock, but this definitely feels like a better example of the genre done right than so many that have come before, and given how the bottom-of-the-barrel stylings of the aforementioned Greta Van Fleet are currently the most in vogue, to see an album like this surpass it almost every conceivable way definitely sparks a sense of glee, even if Rival Sons’ efforts aren’t totally fantastic either. Still, the bar is already fairly low, and while Feral Roots is clearing it with a brisk skip as opposed to anything with real gusto, the number of exceptionally solid moments speak for themselves.
That’s especially telling as well, not least because, clearer than so much of what has preceded it, Feral Roots highlights the benefits of consolidating influences rather than simply replicating them. Classic rock is clearly the banner that hangs above them, but the deliberate vagueness of specifically where they land gives Rival Sons the space to build and mould components as they want; the chunky grooves of Sugar On The Bone and Stood By Me home in clearly on ‘70s rock, but not so rigidly that it sidles into pastiche. The fact that’s a complimentary point is enough evidence for how low the expectations for this sort of thing are, but it’s hard to deny that Rival Sons’ wider breadth of reference points is better managed that so many of their contemporaries. Jay Buchanan is the key factor here, with a barn-busting timbre reminiscent of a bevy of classic rockstars though never tied down too tightly to a single one, while pulling from outside sources like the glimpses towards U2 on the title track or the southern-rock, country and gospel touches that producer Dave Cobb’s handiwork lends to Shooting Stars makes this feel like a more holistic proposition in its own right.
Granted, that’s hardly revelatory, even for Rival Sons, and just because this is better doesn’t mean it’s immune to the issues that have frequently plagued their work. For starters, Rival Sons albums have a bad habit of lacking dynamism, and especially in its favouring of more languid, slow-burning tones, it gets to a point where Feral Roots can really begin to drag. Buchanan definitely deserves some credit for attempting to wrench everything back into place with a vocal performance that’s unshakably excellent throughout, but even from the opener Do Your Worst which feels like the most openly throwaway blues-rock cut here, the dips feel more prominent than they should, even for a band whose status as a singles act is fairly well-established at this point. The writing similarly suffers as well, leaning into the naturalistic, hippie-rock imagery on tracks like Back In The Woods which, when pared with how flat and bare some of these lyrics can feel, is as readily testing as this throwback can be. The more political undertones on Shooting Stars definitely provide something of a change in pace, but one the whole in areas like this, Feral Roots simply amounts to standing resolute on what’s worked for them in the past, and indeed, on the whole album, progression is unfortunately minimal.
Still, that would be more disappointing for a band who hadn’t established a successful formula over six albums, and for a mainstream rock band with a following as vast as theirs, it’s hard to complain about the execution in principle. At this point, Rival Sons know what’s going to appeal to their fans, and Feral Roots is simply delivering, albeit in a fashion that contains some of their best individual moments to date. What that’s worth is entirely subjective, but in a retro-rock scene that’s severely lacking so much personality or charisma at the minute, Rival Sons are perhaps the closest to delivering that, even if that means an album that’s only slightly better than so many others out there. Still, Feral Roots is mostly enjoyable, and for whatever scraps of quality the throwback-rock scene has nowadays, an album that’s reliably decent trumps so, so much.
For fans of: Greta Van Fleet, Wolfmother, The Answer
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Feral Roots’ by Rival Sons is out now on Atlantic Records.