2016 marks 15 years since Black Stone Cherry formed in 2001; and 10 years since the release of their incredible self-titled debut album. The Hard Rock quartet appear to have honoured these anniversaries with a ‘back-to-roots’ 5th album, Kentucky. For fans of the band’s earliest work, which saw them gain tremendous acclaim, this will have been welcome news. Recent records have seen BSC descend into the dark realms of radio friendly rock. So with the band returning to the studio which gave birth to their self-titled album, and even naming the album after their beloved home town, will this record be a return to the band’s southern rock best?
It was clear to see from the band’s promo material that Kentucky was going to be different to those from recent years, and it definitely has features reminiscent of their first two albums. However, this record may well be the band’s heaviest yet! Their bluesy, soul filled, stoner rock sound is ever present; perfectly showcased in tracks like Feelin’ Fuzzy, and Shakin’ My Cage. However, the album has an overall heavier tone, epitomised in the heavy as hell riffs that appear throughout, bringing a dirty, grungy tone to the whole proceedings. The Way Of The Future, and In Our Dreams lead the way in this regard, kicking the album off with a bang. The Way Of The Future imposes Kentucky‘s fuzzy, gnarly guitar tone immediately, before the drums and bass punch through to add much needed weight, and make the intro riff a force to be reckoned with. The rest of the album follows with a similar theme, and these riffs are commonplace throughout the album, shaping it as a heavyweight. This combo of grungy, fuzzy, dynamic riffs with the punchy, emphatic, groove laden drumming is exceptional, and their constant presence is the backbone to everything good on the album.
This new sound is probably attributable to the fact that Kentucky is self-produced, allowing the Black Stone Cherry boys to lay down their own ideas on everything without someone in the background suggesting it have a cleaner production, or is more suitable for the radio. The result has good and bad aspects; while the album is undoubtedly heavier, the whole album has a layer of fuzz sitting atop the production, which makes it difficult to distinguish parts clearly, and creates an unconvincing final sound once the whole album has been heavily compressed, as is the case here. However, this freedom has allowed for greater production value as well; resulting in the standout moment of the album Soul Machine. This is far and away the best track on the album, it is: inventive, fun, engaging, catchy, soulful, bluesy, and just a good solid rock track, all at the same time! It really is Black Stone Cherry at their best, and could compete with previous favourites. The extensive instrumentation, including backing singers and a brass section, really bring the track to life, and add another dimension to it. However, a song can’t be made brilliant simply by adding these features (as shown in the band’s disappointing cover of Edwin Starr‘s War), and it’s the way the instruments are used, work together, and create a generally awesome experience that makes the track really stand out.
Unfortunately, aside from Soul Machine, the tracks on Kentucky are rather formulaic; built upon similar, uninspiring structures. Furthermore, the sections in these structures are often the same, and a chorus from one song could quite easily replace the chorus is another. Some might say it is simply the band honing their sound and maturing. The structures are definitely sound, and the songs are cohesive, but it lacks a little creativity in this area. The redeeming feature for this, in many of the tracks, is the lyrics. The lyrics are, mostly, well considered and developed from a strong theme. They create an emotional connection through the fuzz and distortion as they discuss relatable topics. You can find hidden meanings in tracks like In Our Dreams, and Rescue Me despite the formulaic, full throttle package it’s delivered in. While delivering important messages through songs is nothing new to Black Stone Cherry, they seldom utilise heavier tracks to do it, usually opting for specific softer tracks on an album.
Kentucky, of course, features these too; Long Ride, Born To Die, and The Rambler all attempt it in different ways and, despite clear thought and attention being poured into the lyrics, somewhat miss the mark. Born To Die fails to marry the sentimental lyrics with the music, meaning that it just sounds like any other Black Stone Cherry song. Long Ride just lacks a real emotional connection in its delivery. It is perhaps it’s placement on the album, just after a couple of big, heavy tracks; but the song just sounds insincere. Finally, The Rambler is one that does connect really well; the music and lyrics marry together, and it’s a lovely, heartfelt track about Chris’ relationship with his son. However, the track sounds really out-of-place on the album, perhaps explaining why it’s at the end. They are by no means bad, and The Rambler is a great track (just out of place), they pale in comparison to previous great efforts like “You” and “Things My Father Said”, and it’s slightly disappointing.
Overall, Kentucky is a good effort, and definitely an improvement on previous records, as it sees the band return from the depths of radio rock to their well-established southern rock roots. It is probably their best since Folklore And Superstition, but such was the greatness of those two initial albums, that I’m left wanting more from the album. There’s definitely great rock tracks, with some fantastic riffs, but too many of the tracks stick to a tried and tested formula, resulting in very few tracks actually identifiable as great. Furthermore, the fuzz that sits atop everything, while initially enjoyable as it taints everything with a dirtiness; this becomes tiresome. However, positives are found in the progression of the lyrical writing; and the excellent, strandout track: Soul Machine. It’s a clear high point on the album, and a must listen to for even the most remote Black Stone Cherry fan.
Standout Tracks: Soul Machine/ Feelin’ Fuzzy/ The Rambler
The album is available from all major distributors.
As a bonus, all the best tracks from this album will be added to my ever growing Best Of 2016 playlist on Spotify.