By Eleni P. Austin

Sometimes, contrary or opposite forces are actually complimentary, interconnected and independent in the natural world. They raise each other up as they interrelate to one and other. The tangible dualities of light and dark, fire and water, are the physical manifestation of the Chinese Yin Yang philosophy, but it could just as easily be describing the latest Rival Sons records, Darkfighter, which arrived in June, and Lightbringer which has just been released.

The Long Beach four-piece, which includes vocalist Jay Buchanan, guitarist Scott Holiday, drummer Michael Miley and bassist Dave Beste, began making a name for themselves in 2009. By the end of their first decade as a band, they had released a series of critically acclaimed albums. Before The Fire kicked things off, followed by a self-titled EP, the crisp and economical “Pressure And Time,” the sprawling and ambitious Head Down, the maximum Rock N’ Roll of Great Western Valkyrie and the hard-charging Hollow Bones. They cemented their reputation as an incendiary live act by touring extensively throughout Europe, Great Britain and the U.S.

Rock N’ Roll heavyweights quickly took notice. Everyone from Aerosmith, Kiss, Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Lenny Kravitz invited the Sons to open for them on tour. In the pages of Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page proclaimed them his new favorite band. In 2016, Black Sabbath hand-picked Rival Sons to be the only opening act for their farewell world tour. This raised their profile in the United States, and their fan base grew exponentially.


With their 2019 effort Feral Roots, the Sons’ signaled they were a force to reckon with, critical and commercial acclaim was instantaneous. The album received two Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.

A couple months later, Covid hit, so touring and live performances were put on pause. But for these indefatigable road warriors, it was a blessing in disguise. A chance to rest and reconnect with friends and, most importantly, spend quality time with their families.

Once lockdown measures were implemented, the band was allowed the luxury to relax and subsequently reflect on the turbulent times, along with culture wars and the divisive political climate. Up until this point, the band’s modus operandi, with longtime producer Dave Cobb, was to come off the road, write and record in the studio. It was a way to keep things loose, spontaneous and in the moment.

Of course, the pandemic upended that paradigm, and as inspiradio hit, for either Scott or Jay, they sent each other snatches of melody and song ideas via the interwebs. At some point they’d rope Miley into the mix, to add some rhythmic perspective. As soon as they’d stitch together a few songs, they’d book time with the Dave Cobb, cautiously convening at RCA’s famed Studio A in Nashville. As the shutdown wore on, the creativity continued to flow and the band wound up with a surfeit of songs. Rather than ask their audience digest 80+ minutes of music in one sitting, they split the collection into two albums, releasing the first set under the Darkfighter moniker in June. Now the rest of the music, labeled Lightbringer, has arrived. While Darkfighter opened with the baroque, celestial majesty of “Mirrors,” the new record initially meanders down a more bucolic path, on the opening cut, “Darkfighter.” Twangy baritone guitar, hollowed-out percussion and Jay’s tender croon are cocooned by feathery acoustic arpeggios. Lonesome and forsaken lyrics like “Who’s gonna find my island, if the ships never come my way,” mirror the castaway isolation that hit during the pandemic. Covid magnified the need for camaraderie and the need for human connection. The listener settles in, expecting a nuanced treatise on the human condition. Instead, time signatures shift, Miley lays down a bludgeoning beat, Dave’s angular bass lines anchor the low end and Jay’s melismatic yowl leaps tall buildings in a single bound as he signals his antithetical ambitions; “I want to be a darkfighter, a lightbringer to the end.” As the vocals fade, Scott comes into focus.

The guitar-slinger, lovingly referred to by fans as Mr. Fuzzlord, offers up a musical smorgasbord that begins with rampaging electric riffs and segues effortlessly into sugar-rush acoustic licks before careening into a modal and Mediterranean motif that echoes the improvisational Taqsim and Tsiftitelli, rapid-fire riff attack usually prevalent in Greek Bouzouki music. Somehow, he deftly pivots, salting the mix with flange-y distorto chords before each style intertwine, racing ahead and then retreating, creating an kinetic synergy. Guitars hang back for a bit, as wiggy, Mad Scientist keys land somewhere between Spencer Davis-era Steve Winwood and Jazz great, Jimmy Smith. Tinkling hi-hat action momentarily slows the momentum, allowing guitars to thunder and strut with crushing urgency, making way for Jay’s pensive return; “Words replace me, speaking faster than my mind, so I stumble and collide, to make fact of a feeling, of what’s buried deep inside.” As the final chorus erupts, shadows and light, strength and vulnerability coalesce with a last melodic, but muscular salvo. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, this song simply defies expectations and confounds orthodoxy with every compelling twist and turn. Yup, you’re going to need a post-coital cigarette after this one.

Released a few weeks ago, the first single, “Sweet Life” felt like the perfect palate cleanser between Darkfighter and Lightbringer. A Glam-tastic banger it’s powered by a piledriver beat, sinewy bass lines, hoodoo keys, and scuzzy guitar riffs that ricochet through the fizzy arrangement. Hard-charging lyrics like; “Said I got more trouble than I ever need, less money than I know what to do with, hard living like to bring me to my knees, and I don’t even know if I’m gonna get through it,” burn the candle at both ends but long for some respite. Jay’s stentorian vocals stack and simply explode on the shout-it-out chorus; “I got to have that sweet life, sweet, life, mine all mine, I’ve got to shake, shake, shake the bad rhythm, I’ve got to shake, shake, shake the bad rhythm for good.” Scott uncoils a scorching slide solo on the break as Miley locks into a tribal tattoo before the song powers down on a dime.

Not only is he a charismatic frontman, Jay is also an eloquent and erudite lyricist. A storyteller, as well as a Dionysian rocker, often times sagacious and salacious within the confines of the same song. That’s a potent combination. On this record, “Redemption” joins a pantheon of Rival Sons classics that include the thought-provoking “Soul,” the poignant farewell of “Jordan,” the sanctified stomp of “Shooting Stars,” as well as two that address the paralyzing and sometimes fatal grip of addiction; “Where I’ve Been” and “Darkside.”

As sun-dappled acoustic notes partner with shimmery electric riffs, flinty bass lines and a brushed backbeat, vivid vignettes paint three portraits. A young woman unable to cope with motherhood; “She’d had a child far too young, she knew an hour with her breast on its tongue, she would go quiet when lullabies were sung.” The boy she’s raises in squalor; “He was never allowed to just be a boy, he’d had decisions where he should have had toys, trauma hardens what it doesn’t destroy.” Then there’s the girl who understands and empathizes with his pain; “She had a voice impossibly kind, to calm the rage that rattled his mind, to quiet the beast that rattled in his mind/And no one else looked close enough to see that he’d been raised so viciously, he kept his voice low out among the free, she said you can be yourself with me.” Guitars spark and pinwheel on the break, shadowing Jay as he ascends the rugged peaks of the final cathartic chorus; “If we can make it to the sunrise, we can surrender our yesterdays, and though we make our plans, still we understand that our redemption comes in unfamiliar ways.”

Splitting the difference between the two, the snap crackle, crunch of “Mercy” cloaks sentient, succinct and philosophical lyrics in an impossibly catchy melody. The slippery arrangement weds Scott’s patented Fuzz-crusted guitar, tensile bass lines, and an insistent, handclap rhythm to a sly boogaloo beat. Rather than offering the same shop-worn “turn the other cheek” platitudes, the lyrics advocate swapping out anger and revenge; “somebody hurt you, now you’re going to hurt someone…” for amnesty and forgiveness; “Try a little mercy, mercy never let’s you down.” On the break, Scott unleashes a solo that shapeshifts from sonic squall, to wily wah-wah, latticing reverb-drenched riffs and fractious fretwork that’s guaranteed to melt a few faces. A bit of a bone-shaker, it winds down with staccato handclaps and a percolating beat.

The final two tracks, “Before The Fire” and “Mosaic,” bookend the record with a dark and light dyad that forms an aural chiaroscuro of sorts. The former opens with an extended instrumental intro anchored by tippling hi-hat fills, thrummy bass lines and guitars that ping-pong between pastoral reverie and courtly Flamenco flavors. Rather quickly, the tempo accelerates, as Miley elbows his way in with a walloping big beat. Navigating the song’s melodic switchbacks, guitars adopt a twangy, wide-open sound as Jay leaps in, offering up a tart summation of his callow youth; “I used to dance on the bear trap, I used to sing into it’s jaws, the cold steel and spring was a soundtrack to sharpen my teeth and my claws/I manufactured my demons, a Ford-worthy assembly line, I’d stare down on the production grounds and marvel at my own design.” On the break, rippling acoustic licks are matched by keening electric riffs, chiming arpeggios, filigreed Flamenco fills and Miley’s Tabla-fied beat. Sentiments like “I took my innocence for granted, the future belonged to the old, someday feels so far away and now is all I can hold,” speak to the fragility of life in the wake of Covid, as well as the journeyman musician Jay was before joining the band for their debut, Before The Fire.

On the latter, the record comes full circle. Sweet, sunshiny guitars fall in line with Jay’s open-hearted vocals, loose-limbed bass and a brawny beat. Trenchant lyrics address what R.E.M. once labeled Life’s Rich Pageant, a patchwork quilt of heartache, happiness, joy and pain. This cheerful carpe diem urges us to seize the day, embracing sorrow and pleasure, rapture and redemption in equal measure. The anthemic chorus puts it all in perspective; “In this mosaic of laughter and tears, to fall, to rise, rebuild and realize the broken, the broken, the broken pieces fit together, back away and the lines disappear, the broken fit together, back away and the lines disappear, we’re only here for each other.” A weepy pedal steel shades the sunshine, somehow giving us permission to mourn the departed and celebrate the living. On the break, Scott rips a slack key-style solo that builds to an electrifying crescendo before paring back to churchy keys and strummy acoustic guitars. He graciously gives Jay the final say; “we’re only here for each other.” It’s a thrilling and inspiring end to a great record.

Nearly 15 years in, most bands would be content to create a signature sound and rarely depart from a tried-and-true musical formula. Not these guys. Rival Sons consistently test their mettle and up the ante. With these last two records, they have ventured into uncharted territories without a compass or a map. Instrumentally, new colors and textures have emerged. Lyrics subvert expectations, introspective one minute, existential the next. The message is there if you want it.

Joni Mitchell once noted “Every picture has it’s shadows, and it has some source of light.” Separately, Darkfighter and Lightbringer offer up stunning vistas. Taken together, they capture a moment in time. Part pentimento, part faded polaroid, a window into our collective psyche. Shot-through with soul and grace. This record reveals something new with each glorious spin. Oneness and duality co-exist, out of chaos, comes creation. Out of darkness, daylight emerges. Rival Sons will take you there, if you let them.