Monday, September 23, 2013

Sonic Sandwich: Rival Sons and Queens of the Stone Age

Safe to say, 70s-flavoured retro-rock is an increasingly prominent part of the great musical tapestry. For a long time now, there's no shortage of bands in their 20s who grew up listening to music from before they were born and learning from that. I've expounded before on how good it is that these bands exist. They crystallize everything that holds up about Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Foghat, et al, and remove it from context. Meaning, I'm guessing bands didn't have much of a conception that they were doing "70s rock" at the time, they were just trying to find the way forward from what had been done in the 60s, and what was popular at the time. Now it becomes a conscious decision, a statement of identity. And we've seen enough of it that it's not enough for it to be a novelty or a gimmick. You have to live it.

Rival Sons are a band whose work I am always quick to steer people toward if they're looking for something fresh but familiar. I'm thinking of calling it "New Old," and it goes in a category with The Sheepdogs and Monster Truck. On Head Down, they hit all the major hallmarks of a classic rock album, to the point where no classic album might actually sound just like this. There are pummeling party anthems like "Until The Sun Comes" and "Wild Animal," soaring anthems like "Run From The Revelation," and George Thorogood-like bar rock like "All The Way." Beyond being competent imitators, they find their way to some of the more eccentric corners of their chosen era, like "The Heist," which has the most classic of choruses, the Led Zeppelin III style campfire psych jam "TRUE" or my personal favourite track on the album, "Jordan," which calls up the kind of spirituality not typically used in rock music anymore and almost on its own validates the whole deal. An album like this at first feels comfortable and recognizable, then it's impressive that they got it "so right," then at last it just has all the same pleasures as the actual old music. It strikes that balance between repetitive/consistent and wild/energetic.

There's a difference between, say, a 70s-influenced band like Queens of the Stone Age or Foo Fighters, and a real retro-rocker like Rival Sons. The former camp takes the old ways as a starting point and then moves forward, tracing rock back to a certain point and then taking off from there. QOTSA's new album is very much a 2013 affair, offering an alternative representation of rock from what is typically offered to the Top 40 (as if there's any rock on the Top 40.) Their music is loaded with stylistic decisions that are informed by both decades of nostalgia and a generation of experimentation. It has classic appeal and modern sheen. It takes chances that may in fact alienate fans of the old ways, simply by being modern. That's the downside. The upside is that you get the freshness, the inventiveness of a defined artistic voice. If it scares people off who are looking for comfort, so much the better, because the people who prefer it will like it more. For instance, "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" sounds like something that could have been recorded in the 70s, but doesn't sound exactly like something we know of that was recorded in the 70s. This is the rock that is dedicated to pushing the form forward, or at least keeping it alive in the now. They're not just paying tribute, they are taking up a cause. For shit sakes, Elton John appears ("You need an actual queen on the record!") on the awesomely proggy "Fairweather Friends."

The common denominator to both these albums is that they cut the bullshit that's piled up in rock over the last few decades: the accumulated cultural memory of hair metal, post-grunge, and rap-metal. They use pulverizing riffs and power-fantasy lyrics to assert a huge sound that is completely carefree and escapist. This is headbanger paradise.

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