I had almost given up on the Rival Sons. Their first two albums came out blasting, with great bluesy hard rock that fit perfectly with the rest of my music collection. Then they started to get a little eclectic, maybe too funky, for my tastes. I saw them headline a theater in a Boston suburb in 2014, where they played extended, jam-band versions of their songs, and couldn’t overcome the juggernaut that is Monster Truck, who opened for them. Hollow Bones, released in 2016, was (what I thought at the time) the last straw. I struggled to connect with any of the songs, and from then on, turned down multiple opportunities to see them live.
So it is much to my surprise that Feral Roots, the band’s 6th album, is quite possibly the best album they’ve ever released, and an early contender for album of the year! The sound is heavier, the pace a little faster – it’s a great blend of hard rock from the early albums with soul and funk from the later ones. Although they have stayed with high profile producer and Nashville native Dave Cobb, part of the change may be due to recording a few tracks at famed Muscle Shoals Sound. Or maybe I was missing something since other more experienced musicians disagreed with me; Ozzy and Sharon picked them as the sole opener for The End, Black Sabbath’s final tour, and they opened for G’n’R on a few dates during their reunion tour.
The album starts off with a buzz as the first two tracks, “Do Your Worst” and “Sugar on the Bone” are fantastic rockers, varying the tempo, and using fuzzy guitars, synths and lead singer Jay Buchanan‘s distinct voice to create a sound somehow familiar in a classic rock kind of way, but completely unique. Next up is my favorite, “Back in the Woods”, which starts with a drum roll from original drummer Mike Miley and then the heavy guitars kick in, followed by a big chorus, all the while Buchanan’s voice is clearly heard above those guitars. A magnificent track.
After an acoustic start, the mid-tempo “Look Away” has the vocals more muted with the guitars coming to the front, and it probably has the catchiest chorus. More acoustics in the thoughtful title track that might have fit nicely on Led Zeppelin III. Track 6 “Too Bad” gets back to the heavy, distorted guitars, but keeps the speed slow – this one shows their roots in the blues and soul. “Stood By Me” is a more funky tune, with crisper guitars from original lead guitarist Scott Holiday, but sticks to the blues in the chorus.
Heading into the final third of the album, the distortion is back on the slower tune “Imperial Joy” – this might be the weakest one on the album, but still has a cool riff to keep your attention. The second ballad is next – “All Directions”, again sounding like their acoustic influences from the past. A synth beat brings us back to the here and now for a slamming track at number 10 – “End of Forever”. Although the verses might be quieter, they showcase new guy Dave Best, who has only been with the band for albums 4, 5 and now 6. The bass line behind the quiet vocals and strumming guitars leads into the heavy and loud chorus promising the end. The final track “Shooting Stars” is almost gospel in both its lyrics and the backing vocals, who sound like a church group. While it’s a good song, it was yet another surprise, on an album full of them, because it doesn’t sound like any of the other tunes on the album.
I really liked the variety and the band’s ability to combine all their influences into a very cohesive album (except maybe for the last track). The stability of the band, the high profile supporters, their A-list producer and really strong songwriting put this band at the top. Hopefully, lucky number 6 will be where they get the general recognition they deserve. They’re headlining a tour right now – so go see them and go buy the album. It’ll be the best thing you do in January, since more than likely you’ve given up on your new year’s resolution!
Feral Roots is out now on Atlantic.