(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Recording review - Bohannons, Black Cross, Black Shield (2015)

Missed connections and missing links


Did you ever have one of those first dates that started out so promising, but then left you checking your watch, waiting for it to be over? It's like the person could hold it together for the first five or six minutes, but no matter how intriguing and cool they seemed then, the rest of the evening had them unraveling until you wondered if that first impression was just a fluke. Maybe you even began to question your earlier enthusiasm. That's exactly where I find myself with Bohannons' Black Cross, Black Shield.

The title track starts out awesome, opening with a heavily compressed guitar riff joined shortly afterwards by a harmonized guitar in the foreground. The tone has the visceral slam of AC/DC, but with a mellower retro blues rock pace. The reverberating vocals line up quite nicely with that, giving me a good idea of what it might sound like if Mick Fleetwood fronted a Black Sabbath tribute band. The droning guitars and thick pentatonic riffs conjure up a raw intensity. The bridge turns to old school psychedelia, reminding me of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men", and I'm caught up in the hypnotic swirl of distorted guitars. The best part is that it keeps showing kaleidoscope flashes of almost recognizable riffs: a touch of "Iron Man" here, a smear of "Sister Ray" there.

So, six minutes in, I'm thinking this could be the start of something great and I settle in for more. The Bohannon brothers' twin guitar assault continues on "White Widow". The classic rock vamp at the start isn't as catchy as the first track, but the band still plows into the full sound with enthusiasm. The music is pretty decent and the lead near the end throws in some speedier runs, but the initial attraction is starting to fade, in large part because the lyrics can't hold the song together. They sing the lines with gusto, but it's hard to pull a linear theme from lines like, "Who's to say you're out of touch/ Just because you feel so much/ I just got born/ And then I died."

From here, the die is cast: the solid guitar work can never quite overcome the vague or repetitive lyrics. Bohannons slog through a string of hard hitting garage rock, but they never find the momentum that seemed so natural on the title track. Songs like "Dias de Los Muertos" or "Lightning and Thunder" plod along and never really deliver any satisfaction. The best of the lot, "Death and Texas", has a righteous Neil Young shred (in fact it's fairly derivative), but the platitudes about illness and loss offer little insight: "To watch you fade / Day by day / Has got me a little down on God / And his mysterious ways."

I toughed it out to the end, hoping I could salvage some of the magic of that initial taste. The final tune, "Red, White, Black and Pale",  is a doom-filled, apocalyptic vision but it doesn't measure up to anything Mike Doughty wrote for his recent ambitious musical, Revelation: A Rock Opera. So, no magic miracles to save the day. It's rare to turn so sharply from hot to cold on an album like this, and I began to doubt my memory. Was I suckered in somehow at the start or did Bohannons lead with an uncharacteristically strong tune? Unlike a disastrous date, there was an easy way to check the facts. I steeled myself, hit replay, and dove back into "Black Cross, Black Shield".

On the second listen, I still enjoyed the song's classic metal grind and dynamic pacing, but I also noticed some cracks in the facade. In particular, the similarity between the chorus and Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle", became impossible to ignore, even though the band cloaks it in wailing guitar tone. That revisit makes it easier for me to send Black Cross, Black Shield on its way with no regrets. It's not fundamentally flawed, but we're just not compatible after all.

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