Release Date: 19th May 2014
Rock Ain't Near Dead - that's been my mantra for a while, and I am now more convinced than ever. California Breed is a fantastic album by a fantastic band. It's new breed, if you will - it doesn't sound like Deep Purple, Black Country Communion, or anything that preceded it. Hughes and Bonham have done some of their best work yet, and the avenue of guitar heroes has a new kid on the block in Andrew Watt.
Glenn Hughes was given lemons - and he squeezed the lemons until they produced a golden nectar. He picked the right few friends and they've done the near impossible in actually transcending what I had expected from this record. I spoke with Glenn a good bit in the aftermath of his last band, and I knew he had a certain fire in his soul, that fire you get when you've done your best and been burned.
He did what should be done, he turned his intense pain and disappointment into love and hard work. He's just told me that this is his best work in 30 years, and I wholeheartedly agree.
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A big question on a lot of minds - how's the guitar playing? The guitar playing is great, and is what makes this so very different than anything in the accumulated catalogues of the band's senior partners - Andrew Watt is a big, brash player who sounds like he was raised on Page, Ronson, and Bolan. Like he was born with a Les Paul in his hands. He's not a shredder, but he sure can play - he's a riff and song sort of guy as opposed to a soloist, but his solos burn for just that reason.
I love that beyond 'the voice of rock,' there is almost nothing to connect this to the deceased Black Country Communion - brilliant as it was, there's no point in rehashing, and there's none to be found here. This is a fresh, new beast that will surprise a great many listeners. Producer Dave Cobb turns out to be right choice behind the board - this sounds like one foot in rock's history, and the other is very much in this moment. Last year's near marriage between Hughes and the Stone Temple Pilots guys now makes much more sense to me. He's again reinvented his sound - the voice is still amazing, and his bass playing is sublime as ever, but you've never heard this before, this is a new suit with a great fit.
Jason Bonham. He's getting better and better - he says this is his finest work, and there is no question that he's right. He's got great technique, but he never makes it the point. Instead, he plays for the song - pushing, pulling, and pounding great performances out of his bandmates. Great drummers understand that their job entails driving the band and songs, shaping them to their will. Bonham obviously gets this, and it's obvious that his writing credits on every song are well deserved.
The Way is probably the most familiar sounding riff on the record, but almost as soon as the words Led Zeppelin cross your mind, Hughes hijacks the tune and takes it for some very sophisticated maneuvering, spurred on by Bonham's thunderous assault. Watt is huge in the mix, and a lesser singer than Hughes may have gotten swallowed up by the tremendous wall of sound. This is going to be a hell of an opener when this bunch hits the stage. This is the way it should go.
A big beat and some swaggering guitar announces the arrival of Sweet Tea, and Hughes breaks out a little funk for the verses before a melodic pre-chorus dives in then gets pushed aside for some extremely cool, effected guitar that makes me miss the days when Aerosmith were still world beaters - Watt tears off his first solo, and it's a right dazzler, exciting and riveting. These guys are having fun. I'm having fun. This is rock.
Watt comes out swinging on the intro of Chemical Rain, and Cobb's presence is palpably felt in the mix - then we get quite psychedelic, as Hughes shows just how masterful a songwriter he's always been. He takes things in a different direction very abruptly, but it feels right - in fact, it feels great. This has a definite Page-y pace, and under the familiar moving guitar part Hughes plays some brutally cool bass. I was just talking to George Lynch the other day about the glory of certain singing bass players and their ability to play a line that is both separate from the guitarist and their vocal lines, and this is a sterling example - listen closely, kids.
Midnight Oil is the first single release, and it's a great example of the more modern side of the band. I've never heard Hughes accompanied by female background singers, but it works quite well. Watt supplies some elastic guitar that makes things swing nicely, and Bonham is pushing and pulling fantastically. The fuzzed out first guitar solo is one of the biggest tones I've heard since American Woman, and Watt's second solo is even hotter - here's where you can hear that the kid can flat out burn.
Things slow down for All Falls Down as Hughes pours out his soul and he continues to earn the title of 'The Voice Of Rock.' He takes it from a whisper to a beautiful bellow on the chorus, and the dynamics are lush and lovely. Lyrically his heart is on his sleeve, and the arrangement is perfect for the content. This is sophisticated and still sweet, a trick that only a master magician can muster. Are there still hit singles? I don't listen to the radio, but this is a hit single, and Watt's stunning solo reminds me of those old Journey smashes, in which things would seem so calm, and then Neal Schon would take us straight to the stratosphere with an epic onslaught of guitaristic beauty. This one's a classic.
The Grey is as close as Glenn Hughes has ever gotten to punk rock - of course, this band doesn't ever stay in one place for long and soon enough, it's off to the futuristic races. This album is as interesting as a Kubrick film - it takes us to places we've never been, and it's fascinating trip. Watt throws down another brilliant solo, and I see why the Ronson comparisons have been made. He's a thrilling player, fearlessly jousting with Hughes and Bonham, two of rock's hardest hitters and faring very well.
You've never heard Glenn Hughes do anything remotely like what goes on in Days They Come - he's going places even he's never been, and when you hear the chorus, you'll congratulate him for his bravery. To be pushing your creative limits at the age of 62 accurately defines how one should live, and our man Hughes is getting it right. Wear a helmet for the chorus of this one, it careens pretty wildly. Dave Cobb is great with choosing vocal effects, and they are fabulous on this one. No one's ever really thought of dressing up 'the voice' like this before, and it fits well.
Spit You Out is more in the vein of modern/indie rock, taking a Bowiesque ride that is very pleasantly retro nouveau. Think Ziggy in the 21st century. Crazy stuff, but trust me, it's a great journey. Glam gets good in 2014. Great guitar sounds abound as the kid breaks out all the right moves.
Strummed acoustic guitars on a Hughes record? Oh, hell yes, and on Strong they blend well with Watt's electric orchestrations and the chorus is even a bit Beatle-y. Pop leanings are a welcome thing, and this again is brand new territory - Bonham handles it well, and keeps the ship in its lanes with a bit of Moon-tastic drumming. Again, it sounds like they're having great fun, breaking down some walls and moving into new arenas, which is as it should be.
Heading down the backstretch, Invisible brings out the big guns, and all three of the Breed are riffing large before things slow down and Glenn's vocal floats above the brilliant din, and Watt's guitar playing is most expressive as it carries the vocal down the river. After their debut, Black Country Communion never made it again to this level of interplay between the members - this sounds like a band that enjoys itself. A glorious, joyful soundscape. Watt's leads are cool compositions of their own, and not just standard lead noodling. Great stuff.
Scars comes in on a wave of layered guitars and its sexy swagger is a welcome antidote to the down nature of our times. This cut is a perfect example of the age range of the band's members - you've got a solid connection to the past with some nice references to the black country history of Bonham and Hughes, but new kid Watt keeps this in place as a fine slice of modernistic rock. Excitement - that's a word I keep coming back to with this record. It's exciting, and I don't say that about too many records these days. I don't know where the songs are leading, and yet again, and again, they're thrilling me when I get to the destination.
More acoustic work accompanies Hughes on the intro to Breathe, and as things develop you hear where the singer has been headed ever since he returned to his rock roots back in 2010. I'm damned glad to have him back in this arena, because he's an artist - first, and foremost - he follows his muse faithfully, not stopping to pay heed to naysayers, or unbelievers. The man is true to his soul, and how many classic rockers can you say that about these days? He's got a team that is right beside him putting out 110% at every moment - nobody wants to pack up and go home, nobody's waiting around to get paid, and when you hear this tune fade, you'll just hit repeat.
California Breed is going to be tough to beat as the year progresses towards the inevitable top tens, and if you haven't pre-ordered this record yet, go ahead and do that now. You aren't going to want to be a day late for this party.
Glenn Hughes - congratulations, my friend. You took what could have been a hard setback, and you've turned it into a great success, and an inspiration for anyone who chooses to pay attention. I know what it took, and you passed with more than flying colors.
And, we have a new guitar hero in Andrew Watt - playing for the tune and the thrills is a beautiful thing.
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