Rival Sons have always possessed a wonderful improvised quality. Before The Fire (2009) and Pressure & Time (2011) were defined by a played live feel, a sense of momentum, if not direction, that gave the Sons an edge on their rock classicist peers. They felt instantaneous where others felt dusty and stayed. Famed for their fast recording, a question mark lingers over both the band and their new album Head Down: can Rival Sons’ breakneck pace ever produce a cohesive and satisfying start-to-finish LP?
When lead guitarist Scott Holliday spoke to Guitar Planet earlier this year he made it clear that the Californian rockers had no intention of changing their approach: “We’ve finished one already! We went to Nashville, spent 20 days there and we wrote the songs on the spot and recorded them in the moment…it’s a conscious decision, because that’s what rock’n’roll needs right now.”
Despite the frantic approach Head Down is the band’s most consistent effort to date, almost frustratingly so. For six tracks, The Sons tease us with a sensuous, soulful and surprisingly harmonious LP. At its best the album saunters beneath the thick haze of the Californian sun. Enticingly restrained, “Wild Animal” and “Until The Sun Comes” shimmer with the kind of implied libido that lures listeners in rather than drives them away. The Sons take the loose easy charisma of fellow Californian residents Eagles Of Death Metal and combine it with the more straight-laced steel of a Led Zeppelin.
A broad palette of influences from the Delta to the States’ sun soaked shoreline mesh to create an easy and unmistakable atmosphere. This isn’t the wild dog eat dog world of Appetite For Destruction, it’s a more relaxed, but no less seductive vision of the States, where the threats are implied, the sexuality bubbles under the surface, and the parties careen languorously through the night at their own pace.
Sadly after the spacious and sinuous “Jordan”, the kind of signature ballad the Sons have being crying out for, the band slip back into hit and miss territory. The album becomes haphazard, and feels thrown together. “All The Way” is a real laugh on a first listen, but it becomes tiresome after multiple plays, it’s a perfect live tension breaker but on record it feels out of place. “Three Fingers”, an urgent and charismatic rocker, is equally awkward, providing a stark contrast to the serene harmonies and layered crescendos of The Doors inspired “The Heist”.
The album’s scatter brained second half is salvaged by its final suite, which mixes frail spirituality with muscular guitar workouts. “Manifest Destiny Pt. 1 & 2” provide a fitting showcase for Holiday’s playing as he toys with silence and the endless expanse. His guitar soars and unfurls across a seemingly endless horizon before pulling itself back in for a knotted and intricate finale. Across two muscular, screaming, and yet still thoughtful tracks he does more to express the sorrowful plight of the Native Americans than Carlos Santana could manage on his entire “native peoples” themed comeback LP Shapeshifter.
Head Down is a giant stride forward. It frustrates, it niggles, and it never quite stays on one path long enough to truly satisfy, but it hints at a tremendous potential. The band’s approach to the studio may not have changed, but the Sons are growing more accomplished with each passing LP, and if they can focus their collective energy in one direction they might just produce something very special indeed.
Buy If: You’re in the mood for a stomping sauntering rocker with a sexily understated vibe.
Skip If: You’re after cutting edge innovation and a more consistent start to finish LP.
Best Track: “Wild Animal”
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