With a swagger born of the confidence of a band at the peak of their game, the Atlanta outfit hit the target once again. If 2015’s Holding All The Roses hit the country road, then the latest release sees the ‘Smoke well and truly into the journey and hitting all the right notes. Twelve songs, balanced and well-paced, vary in style from the Wild West bar sound of What Comes Naturally, the Country soaked Ain’t Gonna Wait through to the rockier tracks Waiting For The Thunder and the title track, this is a band who continue to do the simple things with such class and skill that they make everything look effortless.
The velvet harmonies are superb, enhancing the clever song writing whilst the Georgian drawl of Charlie Starr just draws you in. Despite the apparent simplicity, the musicianship of the band is once again first class. The Skynyrd flavoured Workin For A Workin Man has hooks galore, the reassuring Hammond keys of Brandon Still and the double edged guitar work of Starr and Paul Jackson. Hell, there’s even a funked up tune in Believe You Me that Stevie Wonder would be proud of. With their fifth release, Blackberry Smoke have once again staked their credentials as one of the premier Southern County rock outfits of modern times. The UK tour in April can’t come quick enough. Yeeeehaww!! 9/10
Joanne Shaw Taylor: Wild (Axehouse Music)
Wild is the fifth studio album from blues singer and guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor and it’s a fine release. Soaked with her now trademark smokey vocals and dripping with some of the best guitar work you will hear this year, Wild opens with the by now familiar Dyin' To Know, continues with the stomping Ready To Roll which has some lovely backing vocals from Mahalia Barnes (Jimmy Barnes' Daughter - Blues Ed), Juanita Tippins and Jade MacRae and doesn’t stop from there on in. Such is the quality and warmth of JST’s playing, you feel like these are old friends you are welcoming back into your house rather than new visitors. There are a couple of fine covers on this release too. First up is Wild Is The Wind, written by Dimitri Timokin and Ned Washington for the 1957 film of the same name and performed over the years by a multitude of artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, George Michael and probably most recognisably by David Bowie. JST treats this fantastic tune with a great amount of respect and adds another quality version to the catalogue.
The other cover is slightly more well known. Summertime, originally written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heywood for the opera Porgy and Bess in 1934 has, according to Wikipedia, been recorded over 25,000 times so take your pick of your favourite version. All I can say is that this version sits comfortably amongst all the other tracks on this album and JST’s guitar playing adds personality and individuality to one of the most recognisable songs of all time. Perfect to relax to with some beautiful piano playing enhancing the guitar work. With superb production from the renowned Kevin Shirley and supported by a plethora of excellent musicians, this is one of the releases of the year. It’s worth shelling out the extra Welsh pound or two for the deluxe version which has two additional tracks, both real quality with the final track, the rocking Your Own Little Hell bringing a superb album to a close. 10/10
Testament: Brotherhood Of The Snake (Nuclear Blast)
It’s been four years since the Bay Area thrash monsters Testament hit us with possibly the best album of their long career, Dark Roots Of The Earth, which was a mighty slab of anthemic and memorable thrash metal at its best. Four years. Since then, the band have toured relentlessly, albeit sporadically in the UK with a full tour substituted by smatterings of shows far away from our stomping grounds.
Brotherhood Of The Snake is the band’s 11th studio release, and the first to feature returning bassist Steve DiGiorgio since 2001’s First Strike Is Deadly. Musically it is tighter than my mother-in-law on holiday. The drumming of the legendary Gene Hoglan is astonishing, whilst the twin guitars of Alex Scolnick and Eric Peterson is razor sharp. Up front, Chuck Billy is as robust as ever, full of snarling aggression and power with as much energy as those early days in the 1980s when anthems such as Into The Pit and Over The Wall were pretty much glued to the turntable. And I suppose therein lies my only problem with what is a competently excellent album. The songs lack that little bit of pizazz which grabs you by the bollocks and slams you into the wall and leaves you demanding more.
The title track is a stomping opening to the album and The Pale King is memorable but after that it pales into a bit too much of the same. Breakneck speed drumming, riffs and solos galore but just a little repetitive. Seven Seals adds a little variety on an album lyrically inspired by ancient astronaut hypothesis and Ancient Alien TV programmes and Neptune’s Spear is classic Testament. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad album by any stretch of the imagination and Andy Sneap’s mixing combined with Juan Urteaga’s production make it a high-quality listen. You just get to the end and think, what did I just listen to. Maybe the bar was just set incredibly high with Dark Roots. Still a thoroughly enjoyable release. Just not the smack in the face you might have expected. 7/10