By Eleni P. Austin
Tired of people pissing and moaning that real Rock & Roll is dead? A quick way to shut them up is by putting a Rival Sons record on the turntable and cranking the volume.
Long Beach musicians Scott Holiday (guitar), Michael Miley (drums) and Robin Everhart (bass) each cycled through a series of bands before forming Black Summer Crush with ex-Oleander vocalist, Thomas Flowers. Although they toured relentlessly, the band never really connected. They amicably parted ways with Flowers and began searching for a new vocalist.
Jay Buchanan had been kicking around the Long Beach music scene for a few years as a solo singer-songwriter and frontman for his band Buchanan. Initially skeptical about fronting a Rock band,Jay was persuaded to give it a go and the results were electric.
As Rival Sons, the band quickly added Jay’s vocals to tracks they had already recorded. Before The Fire was self-released in June 2009. The band hit the road. The following year they recorded and self-released a six-song EP, attracting the attention of Earache Records.
Based out of Nottingham, England, Earache Records has been home to Death Metal and Grindcore bands like Carcass, Fudge Tunnel, Morbid Angel and Deicide since the mid-80s. Independently owned by Digby Pearson, the label offered them complete artistic freedom. Rival Sons became the first straight-ahead Rock band signed to Earache.
Rival Sons had hooked up with producer Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson), for their Before The Fire, record, so they retreated to Cobb’s Nashville studio, writing and recording their Earache debut in an astonishing 20 days.
Pressure & Time was a Rock & Roll epiphany. The memorable melodies were taut and economical, powered by Buchanan’s authoritative vocals, and Holiday’s fleet fretwork, along with Miley and Everhart’s tandem time-keeping.
The album’s innovative, mind-melding cover art was courtesy Storm Thorgerson. Probably best known for his Dark Side Of The Moon cover, Thorgerson and his company, Hipgnosis, created iconic album artwork for Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin. (Just to name a few).
Pressure & Time was released in the summer of 2011. Returning to the road, the band took Europe by storm, opening for Rock & Roll giants like AC/DC, Alice Cooper and Kiss.
The following Spring, in the midst of an extended European tour, the band returned to Dave Cobb’s Nashville studio. Once again, they wrote and recorded an entire album in less than 20 days. Head Down arrived in September, 2012. (In America it came out in March, 2013).
Sprawling and expansive, the album cemented Rival Sons’ standing as the new Golden Gods of Rock. Even Jimmy Page proclaimed them his favorite new band.
Rival Sons were becoming seasoned road dogs. They continued to conquer Europe and were also beginning to attract a passionate fan base in America, when Robin Everhart quit the band in the summer of 2013. It was an amicable departure. Everhart had simply tired of the road.
Luckily, bassist Dave Beste stepped in for Everhart. Already a friend, Beste is known primarily for his work with Rocco DeLuca and the Burden. He officially joined the band as they headed into Dave Cobb’s studio to record their fourth long-player, Great Western Valkyrie.
The album kicks into gear with “Electric Man.” Buzzy guitar notes and a pounding back beat anchor the action. Buchanan leaps into the fray, his yowl equal parts war-cry and yodel. His manner is wanton and seductive as he promises to take us to an erotic “promised land.”
Coupling and conscious uncoupling are the themes played out on three killer tracks,“Secret,” “Play The Fool” and “Good Luck.”
Glam-tastic guitar riffs and a locomotive rhythm propel the roadhouse blues of “Secret.” Buchanan is the carnal conquistador as he engineers an al fresco assignation…“Wait till the cover of night, where no one else can see/Wait in the bushes for me.”
Just as the melody gathers speed, Holiday unspools a corrosive solo as the rhythm powers down. Buchanan’s salacious seduction is underscored by Holiday’s stinging riffs.
A walloping backbeat drives “Play The Fool.” Here, the tables are turned, Buchanan is the cuckold confronting infidelity…“Now I’m a man and a man’s got his pride, the way the boys talk it’s all over school/I got inside you and you took me for a ride, you were the machine and I was the tool.” The instrumental break is positively thrilling. Time signatures suddenly accelerate, Miley locks into a triple-time attack as Beste supplies supple bass lines, all in support of Holiday’s supersonic power chords.
By “Good Luck” the bloom is definitely off the rose. Pin-wheeling guitar riffs spark and stutter on this fuzzy Flamenco. Buchanan’s stentorian vocal style is a clear homage to British Invasion Blues God, Eric Burdon. His mien is caustic and dismissive…“If you’re so unhappy baby, I’m sorry I wasted your time/It’s going to hurt now, but later you won’t even cross my mind.”
Jay Buchanan has always been a trenchant lyricist. Whether he’s pining for a stripper on “Sleepwalker,” offering a sweet benediction to his son on “Face Of Light” or sharing his grief on “Jordan.” He’s a storyteller, as well as a Dionysian rocker and that’s a potent combination. With “Good Times,” Rich And The Poor” and “Where I’ve Been,” he steps up his game with pointed commentary on topics that resonate right now.
“Good Times” is a soulful carpe diem. Beste’s bass threads through the melody followed by Holiday’s reverb drenched riffs and Miley’s subtle percussion. With a few deft phrases, Buchanan manages to touch on the current climate of violence… ”There was a boy with a bomb in his jacket that didn’t explode, so everybody made it home and to bed that night.” Asserting “good things can happen, bad things can happen too,” so seize the day and count your blessings.
“Rich And The Poor” is a sharp treatise on economic disparity and sexual politics. Roiling rhythms connect with Holiday’s fractured licks. “The Rich and the poor, that’s how people get paid…” sometimes our bodies provide our only form of currency. Buchanan’s keening, operatic wail underscores the inequity.
Cloaked in a beatific, minor key waltz, “Where I’ve Been”paints a vivid portrait of a couple haunted by their past. She sold her body to feed an addiction, he is a soldier burdened by regret, recrimination and survivor’s guilt. Both wonder, “How can you love me, when you know where I’ve been.”
The instrumentation is aching and subdued, matching the tentative emotions until Holiday unleashes a soaring, cathartic solo.
Other standout tracks include “Open My Eyes” and “Belle Starr.” The former is pure heaviosity. Michael Miley pounds his kit like a man possessed, Holiday’s riff-age pivots between searing electric runs and sugary acoustic fills while Buchanan searches for spiritual fulfillment and struggles for meaning.
The latter offers a pocket history of the infamous female outlaw, “the great western Valkyrie” cut down in her prime. Here the melody shifts from marauding psychedelia on the verse to lilting and lyrical quietude on the chorus.
Great Western Valkyrie closes with “Destination On Course.” Brooding and incendiary, it is a showcase for Scott Holiday, Guitar Whisperer.
The song’s lyrics, also by Holiday, detail a Homeric odyssey through uncharted territory. Anchored by a rumbling rhythm and jittery bass lines, Buchanan’s impassioned vocals glide over Holiday’s stunning pyrotechnics, a tour de force finish to a triumphant album.
Aside from Dave Cobb, the band received able assistance on keys from Ikey Owens and Mike Webb. Contributing Hammond B3 and piano colors are equal parts spiritual, spooky and sanguine.
Great Western Valkyrie is dense and intricate. Rival Sons take a giant leap forward with each new album. Their crackling chemistry is rare and wonderful, mindful of seminal bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Rival Sons are on the cover of the latest issue of CLASSIC ROCK. The headline reads “The future of Rock N’Roll belongs to them.” The future is now.