When I dipped into the liner notes of this, the second offering from the mighty Black Country Communion, having just listened to it for the first time, it seemed like producer Kevin Shirley was reading my mind (or, in the interests of chronology, I his). Comparing the album to last year’s debut, he observes “It’s interesting that there’s such a unique band identity that comes through on two such different recordings”, and I couldn’t agree more. It is very impressive indeed that four such powerful musical personalities, under the expert guidance of the increasingly ubiquitous Shirley, could so quickly establish such a cohesive and distinctive sound and musical ethos. And, at the same time as carrying this BCC stamp, the new album explores new musical avenues, and has a different feel, different textures – warmer, more intimate, somehow.
As Mick Wall noted in his Classic Rock magazine review, one obvious difference between the sophomore effort and the stunning debut that immediately comes across is keyboard supremo Derek Sherinian’s adopting a more assertive and in your face role this time around. The intense Hammond soloing, sparring with Joe Bonamassa’s leads on rollicking opener ‘The Outsider’, brings to mind the frenetic playing of Ken Hensley and Jon Lord back in the day, and sets the tone for Sherinian’s performance across the album. It must be a lot of fun for a keyboard player in a contemporary rock band to be able to cut loose to an extent typically reserved, these days, for their axe-wielding colleagues and, with plenty of other guitar dominated bands having tried (with varying degrees of success) to channel the spirit of Zeppelin, Cream and Free, in recent years, it’s lovely to have Black Country Communion adding the likes of Purple, Heep and the Nice to the melting pot of vintage influences. (Sherinian even gets to add some very cool, extremely seventies electric piano to the Bonamassa-sung ‘Ordinary Son’. Super-nice!) Special mention must also be given to the heady, swirling string arrangements of Jeff Bova, which help to endow some of the standout tracks with the middle-period-Zeppelin-like grandeur that is such a distinct hallmark of this most super of supergroups.
Talking of which, it may well be observed that it takes no small amount of chutzpah on the guitarist’s part to take some of the lead vocals in a band fronted by Glenn Hughes – kind of like, one might well imagine, those old Journey tracks on which the foolhardy Greg Rolie (by no means a bad singer), shared lead vocal duties with Steve Perry. However, any such concerns are immediately dispelled on the tracks in question; Joe’s coolly soulful, emotive delivery contrasts pleasantly with Glenn’s unmistakable vocals, which are as consistently wow-factor-supplying as ever. Indeed, the other Bonamassa-fronted track, ‘The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall’, is an undoubted album highlight; grandiose and adventurous, with strong shades of Led Zeppelin III provided by its folk-tuned acoustic guitars. I don’t suppose anyone will be surprised to hear that Bonamassa, as on the first album, gets plenty of opportunities to really let rip with the aggressive side of his lead playing – something that he has usually been encouraged to rein in on his solo blues releases – and he delivers on this in spades. One big surprise on the album is provided, though, by ‘Little Secret’, an idiosyncratic slow blues which packs a powerful emotional punch, and impresses as much for the restraint as for the virtuosity of its performances. Also on the gentler side is the epic closer, ‘Cold’, flavoured by classic soul chord progressions, which ranks, for my money, alongside the greatest tracks Hughes has ever recorded (quite a list, by the way). On such material, as more obviously on the hardest cuts, the formidable (an understatement) Bonham-Hughes rhythm section – so crucial to establishing the vitality and authenticity of BCC as a band that, for all of its vintage influences, is inarguably of the present – shines powerfully, evincing the critical command of dynamics that all lead players need behind them, to express themselves effectively.
Final thoughts, then? Over, once more, to Mr Shirley. Black Country Communion “is an astounding musical group, unlike any other” – no arguments there – “and absolutely the kings of their genre”. Well, I wouldn’t like to go quite so far as to endorse the last part – there’s some damn fine old school rock music around right now and, in any case, it’s part of our job as fans to keep these guys on their toes, no matter how legendary their pedigrees! They’re up there, though, no doubt about it. Right up there.