By Eleni P. Austin
If Artificial Intelligence were to create a perfect Rock N’ Roll band, it would probably require four essential components: a charismatic frontman, an enigmatic, virtuoso guitarist, a stoic bassist and a wild-man drummer. But no matter how perfect that designer imposter might simulate that primitive cool, it could never come close to replicating the thrilling, full-throttle sound that Rival Sons have been generating since 2009.
With the release of their debut long-player, Before The Fire, the Long Beach four-piece, which includes vocalist Jay Buchanan, guitarist Scott Holiday, bassist Robin Everhart and drummer Michael Miley hit the ground running. Non-stop touring got them noticed, especially on foreign soil. Soon enough, they were opening for legendary bands like Judas Priest, AC/DC and Alice Cooper. A self-titled EP followed in 2010 and included incendiary crowd-pleasers like “Torture” and “Soul.” Rather quickly, they inked a deal with Earache Records, a British Death Metal/Grindcore label. whose roster included bands like Fudge Tunnel, Carcass and Wormrot . The Sons were the first straight-ahead Rock N’ Roll act they signed. Drafting off the blueprint the band established with producer Dave Cobb (who had helmed both Before The Fire and Rival Sons), they retreated to the studio and wrote and recorded their third effort, Pressure And Time in an astonishing 20 days. That was the record that hooked me.
My pal Tom insisted I check out Rival Sons and Pressure… was my gateway drug. The record was such a pure blast of adrenalized Rock N’ Roll. It was exactly what I needed at the time, I just didn’t know it. Hints of their myriad influences, Blues, Jazz and Soul, Eric Burdon, Bad Company, Jeff Beck, The Who, Led Zep and The Sweet, were distilled in their music, but never in a derivative, connect-the-dots fashion. It was one of those sublime records that revealed something new with each spin. Every time I decided on a favorite song (What? I’m a record nerd it’s what we do), like “Young Love” or “Burn Down Los Angeles,” I would immediately be drawn in by the Blitzkrieg energy of “Save Me” or the modal elegance of “White Noise.”
Each successive record felt like a giant leap forward for the Sons. 2012’s Head Down was as sprawling and expansive as Pressure And Time was crisp and concise. The record featured barn-burners like “Keep On Swinging,” molten face-melters like “Manifest Destiny Pt. 1” and inconsolable infection point, “Jordan.” Unfortunately, at this point, Robin decided he’d had enough of life on the road and amicably parted ways with the band. Luckily, the Sons recruited their compadre, bassist Dave Beste, and wrapped up pending tour obligations. By the time they commenced recording the next one, he had been jumped into the Rival Sons gang permanently.
Released in 2014, that album, Great Western Valkyrie struck a balance between the polar extremes of Pressure… and Head… Serving up bangers like “Electric Man” and “Belle Starr,” the sonic sludge of “Open My Eyes” the Glam-tastic raver “Secret” and the contemplative grace of “Where I’ve Been.”
By now, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page had proclaimed Rival Sons his new favorite band and they had shared stages with heroes like Aerosmith, Guns n’ Roses, Lenny Kravitz and Deep Purple. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne were so impressed, the couple asked the Sons to be the only opening act for Black Sabbath’s farewell world tour. Thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime Sabbath opportunity, the band, now augmented by beardy tour-mate Todd Ogren-Brooks on keys, had an even shorter than usual window to make their next album. Still, they managed to reconvene with Dave Cobb in Nashville, delivering their fifth long-player, Hollow Bones, just a few months into the 2016 tour. Although the album felt a little truncated, highlights included the hard-charging “Thundering Voices,” the poignant and punishing “Fade Out,” the mercurial and melismatic “Hollow Bones Pt. 2” and an incendiary version of the Ike & Tina Turner/Humble Pie classic, “Black Coffee.”
Once the Sabbath tour concluded they were able to catch their collective breath. With their Earache contract expired, the Sons’ immediately signed with Dave Cobb’s Atlantic Records imprint, Low Country Sound.This time, they decided to change up their routine, taking some time creating their next record. Jay and Scott hunkered down in a rustic cabin in the Tennessee woods and bounced song ideas off each other. Returning to civilization, specifically Nashville’s legendary RCA studio A, they got down to business and recorded Feral Roots.
Consequently, the album, which arrived in January 2019, felt like a cosmic exhale. Switching up their recording routine was a gamble that paid off almost immediately. Upon release it earned the usual critical hosannas and became their fasting selling album to date. The first single, “Do Your Worst” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart and the album reached the Top 10 in Germany, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and even here in the U.S. By the end of the year, Rival Sons had garnered two Grammy nominations, for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.
Of course, Covid hit in early 2020. Like most of the world, these perennial road dogs were quickly sidelined. After the the whirlwind of the last decade, the enforced downtime was a blessing in disguise. Allowing the guys to spend substantial, quality time with friends and most importantly, family.
As the pandemic ebbed and flowed, Scott and Jay began sharing song ideas from socially distanced vantage points. When the ideas became full-fledged songs, the band would reconvene with Dave Cobb in Nashville for a week and record. This became the new normal: tinker and create at home, return to Nashville for a week at a time, bringing their vision to fruition. Lather, rinse, repeat, until they had a stockpile of finished songs.
Rather than unleash all 16 songs at once, Rival Sons has made the conscious choice to release two separate, eight-song sets, Darkfighter has finally arrived, its companion album, Lightbringer will be available in the latter half of 2023. Now, the time has (finally) come to dig into the long-awaited Darkfighter.
The album opens with the cataclysmic crunch of “Mirrors.” Ecclesiastic keys envelope the melody for nearly a minute before ceding the spotlight to a buzzy, skittering guitars, wily bass lines and a hopscotch-y beat. Jay’s acrobatic yowl somersaults atop the musclebound maelstrom, demanding to be heard. Soul-searching lyrics long to break free from the self-destructive ties that bind; “Take my tongue and wash it so well, dip it in truth for the lies it can tell, take my hands, let them be untied, teach them to build and to provide.” Each verse is shadowed by stratospheric riff-age. When the epiphany arrives; “I lost my sight so slowly, I didn’t know that I was going blind,” it’s accompanied by sugary guitars (to help the medicine go down) and honeyed keys. On the break, time signatures shift, locking into a modal, tsifteteli groove as Scott unleashes an epic guitar solo that is equal parts fizzy and explosive. It all coalesces on a final transcendent crescendo. The mask, the façade slips away, and the face in the mirror is a face of light, cleansed by a clean, clear truth that hopefully sorts out the wrong from the right.
Typically, Rival Sons will release one or two singles ahead of a new album. But the anticipation was so great for this one, that the band ended up unspooling four singles in the run-up to Darkfighter. The first one, “Nobody Wants To Die.” throws down the gauntlet, offering a clear indication that the four-piece was adding some bold colors and textures to their sonic palette.
A Punk-tastic piledriver, it’s powered by a jackhammer beat, marauding bass lines, thrashy keys and blitzkrieg guitars. The intensity of Jay’s stentorian delivery is matched by lyrics that chronicle an out-of-control blaze; “It burned north through the county, like a fire’s been known to do, it’s been on your trail, now it’s on your tail and it’s surrounding you, it’s surrounding you,” that’s clearly a metaphor for Covid’s devastating death toll. Miley’s pummeling drum salvo detonates on the break, as Scott executes one of his patented Fuzz-crusted solos, bookended by hairpin keys.
The frenetic amphetamine rush of “Nobody…” was keenly juxtaposed by the more broody second single, “Rapture.” A thundering backbeat connects with prowling bass lines, fluttery mellotron hues and guitars that squall and shimmer. Jay’s ethereal croon reaches the rafters as lyrics yearn for a salvation that splits the difference between the sacred and profane; “Let my heart dance its way out of my chest, to sing its freedom, that’s where I long to be, in creation howling with rage/Singing rapture, rapture, sing it loud I do believe, I’m becoming, I’m becoming what I’m meant to be/Sing it loud, I do believe I’m becoming, I’m becoming what I’m meant to be.” Scott cuts loose on the break, ripping a swirly Psychedelic solo just before Jay’s sanctified howl crosses the Rubicon.
With third single, “Bird In The Hand,” the Sons successfully navigate yet another stylistic shift. Opening with a rattlesnake shake, jangly acoustic notes partner with jagged electric riffs, tensile bass, crushed velvet keys and a walloping beat on this stompy minuet. Jay’s playful mien belies ruminative lyrics that long for reinvention; “When you think there’s no place left for you to go, that’s when you cling to the devil you know and you know/Let’s go down to the river, where the water runs still and deep, scatter the ashes of the mess I used to be, drink till there’s nothing left, lay on the shore and take in a good deep breath, shapes in the sand, warm sun shining through the leaves, a bird in the hand, now that’s a miracle I can believe.” The personal veers toward political as the second verse cryptically alludes to both the puppets and puppeteers sowing dissent and discontent, fomenting distrust; “There are rats in the silos drowning themselves in your sorrows, you can have your cake and eat it too, now that the wall’s too thick to chew your way out through, out through, out through.” Sparkly guitar and tingling percussive fillips sidle across the bridge, just ahead of Scott’s scorchy solo which shapeshifts from barbed bottleneck to buoyant banjo, to salty and sitar-iffic in just under a couple of minutes. Magnificently hooky, it powers down with defiant aplomb.
As much as The Pixies pioneered and Nirvana then popularized the loud-quiet-loud dynamic, Rival Sons recalibrate it on their fourth single “Guillotine.” Static, scuzzy guitar riffs collide with serpentine keys, brawny bass and a staccato beat. Jay’s vocals swivel from spookily sepulchral on verse to rhapsodic on the chorus. Dense and majestic, the instrumentation pulses and twitches, ratcheting the tension with each chord change. Deep in the belly of the beast, opaque lyrics conjure images of good and evil that test society’s collective mettle; “The closer you get to the edge, there might be demons where your path used to be, so are you gonna fight, or are you gonna fly back to your mama for some sympathy?” Apocalyptic verses are leavened by a beatific chorus; “Am I closer to heaven or closer to hell, the deeper I go, it’s harder to tell.” The entire enterprise downshifts on the bridge, wallowing in the sludgy quagmire, until Scott’s quicksilver licks kick and claw, spark and squall, hurtling back toward the light. By the shivery coda, the listener is spent, yet satiated.
Meanwhile, “Bright Light” seems to turn an corner, trading angst for optimism. Scott’s filigreed fretwork lattices lithe bass lines, burnished keys and a hi-hat kick. Chiming acoustic licks anticipate an anthemic chorus, that is shot-through with grace and gratitude; “Bright is the light that I see, the ship will come to me, out to rescue me, here comes the one that I know, the flag is waving high, I can see it with blue eyes.” Miley and Scott team up on the break, as a drum fusillade wraps around distorto power chords that strafe across the shuddery arrangement.
The final two tracks, “Horse’s Breath” and “Darkside” deliver a potent one-two punch. The former opens with a wash of malevolent keys and shards of sinewy feedback. Rather swiftly, the action accelerates, sleek guitars and coltish bass are tethered to a breakneck beat. Cloaked by this musical arsenal, Jay slips into full-throated war cry mode as he tries to outrun his demons; “And the miles left on the road are slow and long, and the end is still too far to see/And the hand that reaches out to comfort me says it’s too late, too late to turn around, it says it’s too late to turn around.” Guitars phase and flange between verses, riding roughshod over a twitchy tribal tattoo. By the instrumental break, a scabrous guitar solo rushes headlong into the breach pounding hell for leather.
The intro to the latter is a thick slab of bone-crushing heaviosity. A stinging note of feedback is quickly devoured by a bludgeoning beat. But almost immediately the arrangement pares back to just Jay and rippling acoustic guitar chords. The feeling of emotional impotence is palpable, as he uncoils a heartbreakingly personal, yet universal story. Employing his tenderest croon, he addresses a lifelong friend and family man caught in the crosshairs of a prescribed opiate; “Something’s keeping you awake at night, losing focus when you need to count your flock…there are no promises to keep anymore, now that you’ve gone to the darkside” The volcanic instrumentation simply erupts following the chorus. The battering ram beat, blistering guitars, caustic keys and vinegary bass alchemize, before winnowing down to just willowy guitar and voice. And so it goes, ebbing and flowing, crashing and retreating, until the abyss of addiction proves fatal. Part cautionary tale, part restless farewell, it’s a breathtaking finish to a watershed effort.
The band have begun a new chapter with this record. Cinematic melodies toggle between technicolor arrangements and monochromatic moods. Lyrically, the songs have never been so existential or introspective. In this era of perfectly curated playlists, and algorithm’d jams- that take the guess-work (and the serendipitous joy) out of discovering your next favorite band, song or solo, Rival Sons consistently deliver. Darkfighter is cutting and sublime, a distillation of all that’s come before, with just enough surprises to keep us on our toes. Play it now, play it LOUD, play it again. At least until Lightbringer arrives.