Rock is Not Dead: Not if Rival Sons Have Their Say

Great Western Valkyrie

by
Dave Keneston

Rival Sons 3The inferno of passion emanating from Jay Buchanan’s vocal chords and Scott Holiday’s guitar is evident within the first seconds of “Electric Man” from Rival Sons’ new release, Great Western Valkyrie. This is rock n’ roll the way it was meant to be played. It’s what The Black Keys could be if they had more balls. Despite replacing original bassist Robin Everhart last year, the band hasn’t lost a step, offering a modern blues-rock anthem with the first track of Valkyrie. It captures the listener with catchy, fuzz-laden riffs and vocals soaked in andric sexuality. The unabashed dick swinging is a welcome retreat from the often diluted masculinity on display in what passes for rock music these days. Since when is it hot for a guy to cry into the microphone and stare at his feet?

The record is rife with nods and echoes of 60’s and 70’s influences worn directly on the chests of the band members as proud emblems of their musical roots. On “Good Luck” and “Rich and the Poor,” an organ reminiscent of The Animals and The Doors give the songs a psych-pop sound while Buchanan’s rich vocals add a uniqueness that keeps these tunes from sounding like rip-offs.

The most obvious inspiration derives from the mighty Led Zeppelin, and that’s not a bad thing; if you’re going to incorporate elements from a predecessor, at least stand on the shoulders of giants. “Secret” and “Open My Eyes” epitomize Zeppelin’s impact on the band’s music. Jay channels Robert Plant in a manner evocative of “How Many More Times” on “Secret,” wailing away as the heavy distorted guitars follow a pounding rhythm section. This is a common formula for many Rival Sons works. “Open My Eyes” immediately radiates an essence of “When the Levee Breaks,” with an almost identical drumbeat. An acoustic transitional section brings forth memories of “Your Time is Gonna Come.” Even while using somewhat derivative ingredients, the band manages to make these songs sound fresh and modern. Scott Holiday’s guitar tones and licks are vintage flavored, yet have a contemporary sizzle that breathes new life into a time worn approach. Jay Buchanan throws his soul on the floor for all to witness in every vocal performance, allowing the listener to overlook some clichéd songwriting elements.

Jay deftly uses his falsetto on “Good Things,” as he espouses a hedonistic mantra: “Enjoy it right now, cause you never know when it’s gonna end.” The funny thing about this song is the groove loosely reminded me of the “Gutterballs” scene in The Big Lebowski when Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” is playing. I suppose you can add the gambler to the Sons long list of forebears.

The weakest song on the album is “Play the Fool.” A formulaic, big dumb rock riff song, it could have easily been cut from the album and not been missed. Having a song that sounds like a recycled version of one of your own songs seems to be an all too common misstep amongst retro blues rockers (see Black Keys and Black Crowes).

Buchanan and the band demonstrate their ability to meld incessant rock riffs with psychedelic balladry on “Belle Starr,” the latest ode to the outlaw often referred to as “the female Jesse James.” The song begins with frenetic riffing, then quickly transitions into a reverb-drenched tale of the “Great Western Valkyrie.” Jay’s dynamics and control of his voice take a step forward on this record, as he mixes powerful, sustained notes with melodic crooning throughout the track. The infusion of psychedelia creates a dream-like feel, easing the path for the listener to let the story unfold in their mind. In addition, the peaks and valleys are distinct, providing dynamics that cement it as one of the stand out songs on the album.

“Where I’ve Been” highlights Buchanan’s talents as a lyricist and storyteller. He tells the tales of tortured souls asking their lovers, “How could you love me/when you know where I’ve been?”
It’s goddamn heartbreaking, and a sobering meditation on accepting people, regardless of their tumultuous pasts. Feeling unworthy of love has to be one of the worst feelings in the world and Jay nails it, belting out the moving chorus with fiery fervor. Scott Holiday’s lead playing is tasteful and his soaring guitar tones are tailor-made for the composition.

Rival Sons 2The final track on the album, “Destination on Course,” is the only song featuring lyrics by guitarist Scott Holiday. Scott’s spooky slide guitar comes in immediately, setting an ominous tone to what becomes the signature track of the album. This minor key, multi-movement epic puts a spotlight on Holiday’s slide playing, which seems to be an amalgam of Jimmy Page, David Gilmour and his own individual spices. Long sweeping notes followed by bluesy riffs and swirling effects a la the middle section of “Whole Lotta Love,” generate an ambient feel. The choir adds a further dramatic component, while Buchanan’s howling drives a sense of urgency into the listener’s ears.

Great Western Valkyrie is a leap forward for Rival Sons and puts them in the running to top Jack White’s Lazaretto and the Black Keys Turn Blue as the best album of the genre for 2014. Keep an eye on Rival Sons, they may cross the threshold from being favorites of classic rock guitar nerds into a much broader audience with this formidable collection of badass songs.

Best songs- “Destination on Course,” “Where I’ve Been,” and “Belle Starr”
Worst song- “Play the Fool”
Best chance of mainstream radio success- “Electric Man”

Check our podcast on Rival Sons- I Fucking Love That Band Ep. #18- Rival Sons

4 thoughts on “Rock is Not Dead: Not if Rival Sons Have Their Say

    1. Feel free to sell me on why it’s not. My mind is open Ignacio, but five words isn’t exactly an eloquent retort.

      It’s also interesting you focused on one song when I clearly stated the album was one of the best of the year in its genre.

      As much as I love what the Sons are doing, they do have some songs that are incredibly derivative. To deny that would be dishonest. I overlook that fact because they are so good at what they do.

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