Black Stone Cherry – The Human Condition
At the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, Black Stone Cherry are probably one of modern hard rock’s best bands. They’re yet to release an outright dud for a start, and though they’re not exactly diverse beyond southern-rock and hard rock sounds, they’ve shown to know what they’re doing with them time and time again, as well as having an aptitude for heft that can be really impressive. As a result, they’ve become one of the few bands in this scene that it’s actually become worth anticipating new music from, especially when they tend to have a least a couple of legitimately great cuts across each album. 2018’s Family Tree was a great example of how all of those factors can come together, and while that album has somewhat cooled over time, that isn’t a knock on Black Stone Cherry’s consistency or talent. With The Human Condition though, there’s definitely something a bit off this time, or at least more so than usual. It feels strangely sour for a Black Stone Cherry album, as the portentous weight of the title might allude to, but at the same time, there’s the feeling of the band trying to balance that with what’s normal for them. So while there’s still the steamrolling blues-rock of Push Down & Turn and the evergreen ballad turn on In Love With The Pain and If My Heart Had Wings, it’s not conveyed with the same sizzle or rollick that can really make Black Stone Cherry shine. The political angle doesn’t help here either, and while they thankfully avoid a more uncomfortable brand of jingoism that some hard rock bands are wont to indulge in, there’s definitely something that runs a bit deeper that frustration about how long lockdown is going on for on Live This Way, and for extolling the values of critical thinking on Some Stories, there are markedly better examples of things that demand that greater scrutiny than the assassination of JFK and the moon landing. There’s a distracting austere feeling to a lot of this album that breaks through even when the band try and paper over the cracks, and rather than compliment the warmth and ribaldry that’s become known in Black Stone Cherry’s music, it just shoves it aside.
The effect of that can be felt on the music itself too, which still has a lot of the presence but feels decidedly lacking in the firepower it always used to have. The staples remain, like guitars and solos that are heavier than they have any right to be, and Chris Robertson’s vocals that clearly come from a set of lungs bigger than most small countries, but there’s a very workmanlike sense of progression behind them that saps away so much of the energy and fun that Black Stone Cherry can bring. There’s a cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s Don’t Bring Me Down here, and compared to what they did with Edwin Starr’s War on 2016’s Kentucky, it feels knocked out basically out of obligation. On top of that, the production doesn’t have as much meat to it this time around, and on a song like Ride which sees them go full-on biker-metal, there’s a disappointing thinness overall. In terms of raw materials, there’s still a lot to work with here, especially when there’s still a heaving slam of guitar and drums at the core that’s a key differentiator from just another post-grunge slog, but it’s definitely the least engaged with what it’s doing that a Black Stone Cherry album has felt to date. The massive, sticky hooks feel in shorter supply, and the rambunctiousness that could make for such an underratedly entertaining band is barely in the same capacity it once was. Again, it feels out of necessity above anything else, and that strips away the soul that always made Black Stone Cherry stand out. They aren’t a complete shell of themselves yet – there’s enough to get onboard with here to get along with – but they’re the closest they’ve ever been to taking that fall, and that’s a real shame considering how good this band are capable of being.
For fans of: Alter Bridge, Shinedown, Sixx:AM
‘The Human Condition’ by Black Stone Cherry is out now on Mascot Records.
Puscifer – Existential Reckoning
It says a lot that Tool’s Fear Inoculum has seemingly shed the staying power that so many attributed to it upon its release, almost as though an album fraught with delays among a turnaround time already well over a decade wouldn’t be able to meet any sort of expectations. It’s also not too surprising that Maynard James Keenan is progressing with new music on his own either; he’s always been more creative than Tool gave him the means to be, and when ever Puscifer album has been released at the end of October in their respective years, it’s a frankly refreshing bit of routine to come from an artist who so regularly doesn’t have it. That stems down to Puscifer albums themselves, which have always been mixed bags and acquired tastes, which Existential Reckoning seems to adhere to once again. But there’s a difference between being knowingly obtuse and building a barrier to entry to curate an audience of specifically galaxy-brained prog fans, and that’s Existential Reckoning in a nutshell. Even then though, it’s not like Puscifer are as ultimately high-minded as they believe themselves to be, with the lucid, mind-altering and horizon-expanding narrative they’re creating not having a great deal of depth beyond the elaborate imagery. If anything that just makes it all the more inaccessible, especially when most of these songs run long and lack a real discernible structure that could lead to any sort of forward motion. It’s a real slog of an album to get through, and when the pace barely changes throughout, and it already feels hemmed in by how much of an overstuffed but generally superficial thematic focus it tries to cram in, it’s rarely all that engaging.
As for the sound of the album itself, there’s at least a sense of groove that’s eventually landed on thanks to more prominent guitar on The Underwhelming, but otherwise that’s another area where Existential Reckoning proceeds to sink into its own pretensions by throwing aside anything possibly workable. Lumpen electronic progressions dominate to try and foster some kind of mysterious, almost psychedelic atmosphere, and honestly that wouldn’t be a bad approach if Puscifer could get anywhere close to being as widespread or flowing as they want to be. The pace of this album can be frankly shocking in how little it moves, and with both Keenan and Carina Round displaying little personality as vocalists – as well as having a distractingly jerky sense of scansion on tracks like Bread And Circus – it makes this album all the more inconsequential, the opposite of what it’s designed to be. It’s fine that Puscifer don’t want to be a conventional, hook-heavy band, but when that yields basically just another flavour of the flabby, droning monotony that plagued Tool’s last album, it makes for an impossibly tedious listen, of which there’s next to no impetus to ever return to again. As much as that mightn’t deter dyed-in-the-wool prog-heads who’ll probably eat this up, it just has the complete opposite reaction elsewhere, and Puscifer just leave the same sour, unappealing taste as Tool do at the best of times.
For fans of: Tool, A Perfect Circle, How To Destroy Angels
‘Existential Reckoning’ by Puscifer is out now on Alchemy Records.
Wallows – Remote
Describing the number of career shifts that Wallows have undergone as ‘wild’ would be to vastly overestimate how exciting of a band they are. They started out as a competent indie-grunge bands in their early singles, though that was quickly pared back on subsequent EP and album releases, as any enthusiasm towards them was replaced by abject boredom. That’s somehow been their bridge to becoming a TikTok indie band seeing as their track Are You Bored Yet? has picked up something of a following there (a song from about 18 months ago, may we add), and so of course a quarantine EP was on the cards, given that they’ve subsequently been thrust into a bedroom-pop world that they’ve evidently no clue of what to do with. Well, maybe that’s not strictly true, because they certainly prove they’ve got some adeptness when it comes to blasted, ADD-riddled indie-pop that’s designed to appeal to a very slim niche and no one else. That’s how Remote feels across the board, particularly in its sound that’s now brighter and more overtly poppy, but crushed under the weight of a fried production technique that sounds genuinely horrendous, particularly on Nobody Gets Me (Like You) where its combined with phaser effects for something even more tinny and compressed. Bringing in some life and colour is definitely a positive, but Wallows make such a poor use of it, and often so much of the work that’s gone into it feels like a method of paving over the seams left by cobbling together remote recordings. For a band with their clout, this can feel remarkably amateurish, and judging by the lumpy, lurching progression of opener Virtual Aerobics or the unnecessary blasts of distortion punching through Talk Like That, that almost seems by design.
Then again, it’s not too surprising, given that Wallows have rarely been able to maintain something interesting on their own merits, and so making these compositions feel as pieced-together as possible seems to be their only technique for ensuring some sort of attention is paid. It’s certainly eclipses Dylan Minnette as a frontman in that regard, who remains a competent but anonymous presence whose only really point of strength is dishing out a mild chorus without too much getting in the way. Perhaps even ‘mild’ is too strong a descriptor, as boiling these songs down to their most core essence reveals an incredibly lukewarm collection of indie-rock that has no discernible features to distinguish it from the rest of the Gen Z catalogue. There’s love, heartbreak and all the touchstones in between, and while there’s a bit of an interesting sentiment to a song like Coastlines that probably makes it stand out the most lyrically (it’s also the catchiest song here as well), none of this is going out of its way to do more whatsoever. That might as well be the tagline for Wallows at this point, and the fact that Remote has seemingly come and gone without a trace, even among its target audience, would suggest that they’re effectively being kept around to fill space and nothing more. But even so, there’s better indie-rock that’s just as placid and boring, and more than ever, that just leaves Wallows feeling kind of irrelevant, something that’s honestly been there for a long time now.
For fans of: Dayglow, Beach Bunny, Peach Pit
‘Remote’ by Wallows is out now on Atlantic Records.
Bitch Falcon – Staring At Clocks
It can be difficult to know what to do with Bitch Falcon, seeing as they’re simultaneously skirting genre lines with aplomb, but also have the benefit of rising within a scene that’s only gotten more and more lucrative. In the latter case, that would be the off-kilter, indisputably creative, 2000 Trees-friendly alt-rock, and moving through that space with good single after good single has done plenty for them already. Still, while that’s the case, it’s all the better for their debut album Staring At Clocks to come about now to fully establish where Bitch Falcon lay in the alt-rock landscape, namely with a sound that’s rooted in grunge, but plays with a lot of airy textures and shoegaze tones that has both eyes fixed squarely on the ‘90s and all it brought. The hints of the Pixies, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine are easy to locate, as Bitch Falcon combine a nervy guitar energy and throbbing basslines with atmospheric gloss that hasn’t just been slathered on for contemporaneity’s sake. There’s an underground heart that beats throughout, held fast by Lizzie Fitzpatrick’s lyrics that can easily slide between unceasingly visceral and notably vulnerable (Damp Breath especially feels like the perfect encapsulation of the riot grrrl spirit), and a sense of identity that, above all else, feels cool and new. That’s the draw that comes with alt-rock of these stripes anyway, but Bitch Falcon, above all else, have the creativity that feels sharp and direct, and while this is a sound that could still do with some tinkering, that’s an incredibly good foundation to have.
With that in mind though, it is worth noting that Bitch Falcon are still a few steps from greatness, mostly to do with a lack of tightness that feels like it’s holding the full potential of Staring At Clocks back. That comes from how enveloping the gauzy atmosphere can be, especially on a track like Harvester, where the curtain of sound can obscure what’s behind it and feel lacking in greater punch. Fitzpatrick unfortunately finds herself the greatest casualty of that with how shrouded her vocals can sometimes be, and it’s a disappointing black mark towards an approach that otherwise has a lot of promise. Because, despite how omnipresent that layer is, it doesn’t mar the overall sound to an unworkable degree; there’s still a lot of nuance and vividness from Fitzpatrick especially, both as a vocalist and guitarist in the way something like the title track builds and explodes, while Barry O’Sullivan is the source of some killer driving momentum with his shredded bass snarl on How Did I Know and Damp Breath. There’s a proficiency across the board with Bitch Falcon, something that some more careful production modulation could really do a lot to bring out. Even right now though, Staring At Clocks is the sort of tantalising example of things to come that its flaws really don’t sour it too much. They’re a setback, for sure, but there’s such a wealth of real creativity and originality from Bitch Falcon that holding that against them feels unfair, and even right now, the sort of growth they’ll undergo really is exciting to consider. Nailing it on the first try can be a tough ask, and sometimes one that demands too much, and while that feels like the case here, that’s not to bring Bitch Falcon down. The great band within them just needs a bit more time to come loose and really dazzle.
For fans of: Sonic Youth, Pixies, Black Peaks
‘Staring At Clocks’ by Bitch Falcon is released on 6th November on Small Pond Recordings.
Redwood – Beside A Shallow Sun
There’s something that feels inherently important about Redwood’s debut full-length, if only to the band themselves. Though they’ve never gotten the attention they deserve (their EPs have always shown a far better band than the lack of traction they’ve built would have anyone believe), but being adjacent to both Britrock and indie-emo without totally crossing into either could be a real blessing if channelled correctly. They definitely get there to an extent on Beside A Shallow Sun though, albeit in a way that suggests there still could be an extra few steps taken in that direction. For what they’re doing here, it can generally be condensed as the mid-period Deaf Havana approach, where the Britrock expanse is recognisable but more organic, and the writing has far more poignancy and punch, especially with more outwardly romantic sentiments like on Theme Park. What Redwood feel as though they’re missing, though, is the sort of consistent hook-craft that could really take them over the top. They hit that with aplomb on An Extension Of Us and Lilac, but things can become a bit meandering in spots, and while they still sound great, there’s definitely some tightening up that could be done to make the most of it. That being said, there’s an impressive sense of scope to this album that certainly works in their favour, taking the huge, blustery size that characterised much of 2010s Britrock and injecting it with an emo influence that’s more grounded. An extra shot of adrenaline could turn an already impressive foundation here into something really great.
Redwood definitely have it in them, too; there’s a lot of power in their material that comes from choosing to largely sideline some of their math-rock affectations, and Alex Birchall has the tremulous, rough-hewn vocals of a James Veck-Gilodi or a Henry Cox that have always been the perfect fit for this sound. It comes through in the more powerful production style as well, where the coat of gloss is noticeable without being overpowering, and the guitars and drums especially have the room to surge and create an all-encompassing mood. Just from a sonic perspective, it’s easy to become swept up in what Redwood are doing, and the command of emotion and vulnerability in the writing only tightens that grip even more. Just hitting their populism a bit more would make this a fantastic alt-rock album, but as it stands, Beside A Shallow Sun has that in arm’s reach while being infuriatingly just out of range. That’s not something that hold against Redwood by any means – the leaps and expansion they’ve undergone is noticeable in all the right ways – but as a yardstick for where they could be, that’s what needs to be hit next time. They’ve unquestionably got the means to do it; hell, most of the best ones are on this very album.
For fans of: Deaf Havana, Ducking Punches, The Dangerous Summer
‘Beside A Shallow Sun’ by Redwood is released on 6th November.
Johnny Lloyd – Cheap Medication
So Johnny Lloyd has been having an eventful 2020 so far, not only in announcing the reformation of his band Tribes but also soundtracking his partner Billie Piper’s new series I Hate Suzie, all in the 18-month interim between his debut album Next Episode Starts In 15 Seconds and now. That, along with expressing the desire for yearly album releases, can scream of an artist spreading their creative output too thinly, but while Cheap Medication itself isn’t indicative of that, it’s not the sort of material that can afford to be stretched out in that way. It’s the sort of 2000s indie that’s kind of run its course by now, crossbred with an alternative singer-songwriter persona to try and eke out more longevity, and is only successful in part. It’s mainly because Lloyd can be a really strong writer, and on songs like Based On Real Life and the album’s hidden track, he finds himself capable of bringing forward the evocative imagery and emotion to elevate them. Elsewhere it mightn’t be quite as strong, but Lloyd strikes the sort of everyman figure on the likes of the title track and Crash Site that’s easy to warm to, and there’s very little artifice in both his delivery and how enclosed this album can be musically.
Granted, that’s probably where it falls the most, especially when Lloyd tilts towards his indie side in a way that can feel unfortunately dated and stagnant. Real Thing is the first noticeable example, in what can feel like an island-inspired take on The Fratellis’ Whistle For The Choir if you squint hard enough, but there’s also the shrunken, underplayed indie-pop of Haze and Heavens Below that carry that thread on, and have a lot less appeal than Lloyd might anticipate. There’s nothing explicitly awful about them, but it’s the sort of sound can lack a lot of flavour at the best of times, and without the benefit of at least a big shout-along chorus here, it does fall flat. It’s an odd pairing for an album that also wants to fall into the intimate soloist mould, and splitting the difference by making its indie side quieter doesn’t do a lot for it, especially when the tracks that rely on a sole acoustic guitar and Lloyd’s voice are a lot better on the whole. Conversely by trying to expand this sound, it’s only further limited it, and that does put a dampener on what Lloyd is trying to achieve on the whole, even though a lot of it is pretty competent and well-made. It’s generally fine with no egregious lows, but if this is the template that yearly releases are supposed to be based on, there might be a tough road ahead, especially when Cheap Medication already feels as though it’s struggling to manage some of the ideas it has.
For fans of: The View, The Maccabees, Viva Brother
‘Cheap Medication’ by Johnny Lloyd is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings.
Pteroglyph – Solaire
Pteroglyph have been around in one form of another since 2012, and the fact they’re barely known outside of dedicated tech-death scenes should speak volumes about the sort of band this is. They aren’t necessarily bad, but when tech-metal can struggle to make an impact at the best of times, they aren’t doing much to remedy that, especially when they’ve now moved into a more straightforward, melodeath-inspired sound. And again, there are grounds for that to work, but if finding a home in a larger metal world is the goal, Solaire is taking a very slow journey to get there. It’s not an EP that’s doing terribly much to shine; it’s technical and proficient in its performance pretty much all the way through, but the hook just isn’t there, and Pteroglyph aren’t providing much of a differentiating factor between themselves and a billion others just like them. When none of these six songs provide much that’s all that memorable besides the occasional riff or flourish, it’s hard to become too invested, and that’s where Pteroglyph’s biggest shortcoming begins to really jump out. They come across like a mid-tier metal band lacking the ingenuity to make that next leap, and as a result, Solaire just stays locked in its own adequacy.
It’s not necessarily bad though, and anyone with a taste for tech-metal or melodeath will at least have something to get onboard with here. It takes a lot of cues from its genre, especially in production which has all the sharp edges and austere tones firmly attached, but there’s a sense of flow to Pteroglyph’s take on that which, thankfully, isn’t subsumed by the tech-metal morass like so much of the genre can be. And as mentioned earlier, it is played really well, particularly on the part of guitarist Ansley Prothero who well and truly fills the necessary role of a tech-metal band’s key player in his sense of detail. Lyrically there isn’t a massive amount to fixate on, but Jimmy MacGregor has a decent snarl reminiscent of the mid-2000s from bands like Lamb Of God or In Flames, and again, it helps break up some of the more prominent monotony that their genre can hold. Of course, replacing that with some very notable affectations from another subgenre isn’t smashing any barriers down, but it’s one of the few precious qualities that Pteroglyph can call their own, and that’s always good to have. There is promise here, for sure, and this does have the professional, tightened feel of a band who’ve been honing their craft for the best part of a decade. But on that same token, whem Pteroglyph have had that time to evolve, they haven’t gone nearly as far as they could or should, and that leaves an EP that’s decent for what it’s trying to do, but can’t avoid how inessential it can be, no matter how hard it tries. It’s not worth complaining about Pteroglyph in the scene – again, they aren’t a bad band at all – but it’s also not wrong to expect more than a release that’s passable but unmemorable.
For fans of: TesseracT, After The Burial, Ion Dissonance
‘Solaire’ by Pteroglyph is released on 6th November on Blood Blast Distribution.
Uncut – Blue
Despite having one of the blander and more un-Googleable monikers to come about in some time (they have the same name as an indie band and a defunct drum ‘n’ bass outfit, among others), Uncut at least have the sound and presence to make up for it. Theirs is a groovier, barrel-chested variety of blues-rock, not crossing over into doom or sludge, but also having far more integrity than just another retro-rock chancer. If anything, it’s akin to a less hair-brained Clutch, and while that alone inherently narrows the appeal somewhat, this is still a good amount of fun. Of course, the main contributing factor is that sound, driven by both Enzo Allano’s guitar and Alexa Sertillange’s baritone guitar for the sort of titanic low-end that’s really allowed to shine when it’s slowed down and peels out on Family Blues or Blue Eyes Lover. What’s a bit more surprising is how that works in more of a metal context, but on a track like Snake Boogie which plays things a bit faster and wilder, there’s a rampaging, earth-shaking drive that’s about as forcefully powerful as it comes. Add on production that only compounds the hazy, swamped-out mood even further, and Uncut really do strike something great from a sonic sense.
As for everything else though, it’s hard to call it plainly bad given how much of it the sound shapes, but the loose ends of Blue can be noticed with relative ease. For one, Uncut can be more stone-faced at times than they rightfully should – the presumably dramatic opening narration of Display in Sertillange’s thick French accent especially creates some tonal whiplash – and for an album that can be a bit slow, that doesn’t necessarily help. Sertillange himself has a great voice for this sort of thing, with a ragged, ripped affectation that’s excellently suited for music as liable to wig out as this is, but often it can feel as though he’s not leaning into the fun of it all as much as he could. To be fair, this isn’t the outright absurdity of Clutch, and Uncut’s lyrics can trend a bit darker when they want to, but the slight disconnect between how loose and freewheeling everything is and a delivery that can’t quite match up can be a bit distracting at times. It’s not often, mind, and Uncut still have more than enough roaring meat, even on the surface, to keep everything moving to an enjoyable degree. It’s definitely one that requires a certain mood to get the most of, but when that mood comes, there hasn’t been much better than this in recent memory.
For fans of: Clutch, Baroness, Deep Purple
‘Blue’ by Uncut is released on 6th November on Klonosphere Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall