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REVIEW: Black Star Riders – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013)

BLACK STAR RIDERS – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013 Nuclear Blast CD/DVD set)

Epic Review Time again!  This time it’s a CD/DVD combo set, the debut album by Black Star Riders.  You might know the guys from Black Star Riders by another name they sometimes use: Thin Lizzy.  Scott Gorham put a Lizzy lineup back together in 1996, over the years utilizing Lizzy alumni such as himself, John Sykes, Darren Wharton, and Brian Downey.  But when it came to creating new music, why did they change their name?

Let’s begin by reviewing the DVD, which answers this question and any others you may have about who Black Star Riders are.

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Scott explains that he and Brian Downey really decided not to do a “Thin Lizzy” album because of their own discomfort with the idea. Without Phil, it didn’t seem right. The rest of the band were disappointed because they had written 17 new songs they were excited about. But they would not add a Lizzy album to the canon without Phil.  Singer Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) says that once that decision was made to record with a new name, he found inspiration from a western movie featuring a gang called the “Black Star” gang. He liked the gang mentality. But Brian Downey dropped out early in the proceedings (although he did participate in writing some of the material.)   New drummer Jimmy Degrasso (Megadeth) explains that Thin Lizzy’s special sound comes from a Blues/R&B swing, and of course the “dual guitar armies”. They aimed to keep these qualities with Black Star Riders. Guitarist Damon Johnson believes that Ricky Warwick’s lyrical prowess is exemplary, and carries the Lizzy spirit. I would have to agree.

Recruiting producer extraordinaire Kevin Shirley (Iron Maiden),  the album was done in 12 days. They did one song start to finish each day. It was recorded as live as possible, simply because they only had 12 days!

Unfortunately for me, there just isn’t enough behind the scenes footage on the DVD. There’s a little: brief glimpses of writing and recording sessions. The disc is made up mostly of interviews. Gorham, Warwick, Degrasso, Johnson, bassist Marco Mendoza and producer Shirley take turns in front of the camera. It is quite extensive; this is not a short DVD. (I don’t see a time listed anywhere but I’d guess it was an hour long.)  Subjects covered include Phil Lynott, songwriting, pressure, inspiration, guitar solos, Ireland and more. Each individual song is discussed in detail.


Now that you’re familiar with Black Star Riders, we can discuss the album All Hell Breaks Loose.  Which is a killer.

You could easily mistake the title track for an outtake from the Jailbreak album, or Johnny the Fox perhaps.  Though there is only one Phil, Ricky Warwick’s voice occupies the same range.  His lyrics are storytelling much like Phil’s were, and they both share similar interests in history and gang mentalities.  This is as close as anyone has ever gotten to Thin Lizzy (and no wonder).  I love when, just before the solo, Warwick cries, “Alright Scotty!”  But Johnson joins Scott for the second part of the solo, recreating the classic Lizzy guitar sound.  Then, the single “Bound For Glory” completely captures the goodtime vibe of “Boys Are Back In Town”.  It’s a great choice for a single, and once again you could easily mistake it for an outtake from Jailbreak.   Just like Phil would do, there’s even an Elvis reference in the lyrics.  You truly get the feeling that All Hell Breaks Loose is as much a new album by these guys as it is a tribute to Lynott.

“Kingdom of the Lost” captures the Irish spirit of Lizzy.  Traditional Irish instruments join the band, and it’s in the same vein as a Lizzy track like “Black Rose”.  I should mention now that while each song feels like an homage to Phil, none sound like a re-write.  They capture the spirit without being note-for-note ripoffs, and I think that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to accomplish.

“Bloodshot” gave me a different feeling, which is while the riff has Lizzy elements, it sounds more “southern rock” to me.  Nothing wrong with that either.  “Kissin’ the Ground” then has a more “hard rock” sound, almost like something Damon Johnson might have written with Alice Cooper (who he used to play with) in mind.  But then the excellent chorus is one of the most Lizzy-like.  Then “Hey Judas” (a play on the title “Hey Jude”) is pure Lizzy, 110%. There is no question that Scott Gorham has carried so much of the Thin Lizzy sound into the present.  “Hey Judas” often finds itself as my favourite song (alternating with “Bound for Glory” and “Valley of the Stones”).   Then onto “Hoodoo Voodoo”, where I think the album sags.  I don’t think this is a standout.  Since the aforementioned “Valley of the Stones” is next, the decline is only brief.  This metallic stomp is like a highspeed Mad Max race through the desert, searching for the mystical valley of the stones itself.  Fear not through, the guitar duels keep it within Lizzy Nation.

If things have been a bit heavy, then the gleeful “Someday Salvation” captures that “Dancing in the Moonlight” swing of early Lizzy.  Then “Before the War” has an appropriate military beat.  I’m sure this is an excellent song in concert; you can shout along.  The last song on the regular edition of the CD is “Blues Ain’t So Bad”, a dusky slow rock song.  But I think the better closer is the “bonus track” “Right to be Wrong”.  That “better believe it!” shout-along hook is just great, and this upbeat song just smokes.

As you can no doubt see, I would have found it an impossible challenge to write this review without comparing to Thin Lizzy.  But I don’t think that’s important; the band clearly intended to follow in those footsteps.  If anybody has a right to, it’s Black Star Riders.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Bill Ward – Ward One: Along the Way (1990)

A companion piece to my previous Record Store Tale, a video blog, seen above!

BILL WARD – Ward One: Along the Way (1990)

To date, since leaving Black Sabbath (the first time) in 1980, Bill Ward has released precisely two full solo albums (plus the single “Straws”).   This is especially unfortunate, since both solo albums are particularly fine pieces of work.  The finest and most noteworthy was his first, Ward One: Along the Way, released a decade after his Sabbath departure.  A long time in the making doesn’t begin to sum it up.

Bill himself provides drums, lead vocals, and piano, but not on all tracks.  Some tracks feature guest vocalists (Ozzy Osbourne, Jack Bruce, guitarist Rue Philips) and a guest drummer (Eric Singer, also ex-Sabbath, but best known for being in Kiss).  Other notables include Marco Mendoza (Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake), Lanny Cordola (House of Lords), Gordon Copley (Black Sabbath), Bob Daisley and Zakk Wylde (both of Ozzy’s bands).  Jack Bruce of course also plays bass!  It’s a smorgasbord of integrity.

Aside from some production issues (this album could use a nice, clear remix) this is among the best solo products issued by any ex-member of Black Sabbath, including Dio and Ozzy.  It has its Sabbathesque moments (a few crushing guitar chords, pounding drums, peacenik lyrics) but it truly is an animal of its own.   Bill Ward received a co-writing credit on every original Black Sabbath song, and it’s clear why.  The man has a vivid imagination, creating swirling soundscapes of music.  There is nothing here that is outright commercial, nothing straightforward, everything is just slightly fucked up.  I think most likely it was Bill that gave Black Sabbath its oddball experimental edge in the early days.  An edge they have lost now that they have given him the boot.

The obvious standout track is “Bombers (Can Open Bomb Bays)”, the thunderous single featuring none other than Ozzy himself on lead vocals.  But even that is strange and offputting, as the pitch of Ozzy’s voice is manipulated in the mix, giving him an otherworldly sound at times.

But there’s nothing wrong with Bill’s own soft vocals (aside from being mixed too low), as he proves on the standout tracks “(Mobile) Shooting Gallery” and “Pink Clouds An Island”.  He often layers his vocals, thickening them up, but it’s a pleasing effect  “Pink Clouds” is a particularly great track, featuring some nice unusual percussion and vocal bits.

Jack Bruce’s “Light Up the Candles (Let There Be Peace Tonight)” is a beautiful song with a great little guitar melody that weaves in and out, but Jack really delivers on the vocal.  If you hate lyrics about world peace, avoid this album!  “Snakes and Ladders” is another standout track, perhaps the closest thing to a straightforward rock song, although Marco Mendoza’s fluid bass keeps it slightly off-kilter.

Ozzy returns to sing lead on “Jack’s Land”.  I heard a while ago that a reissue of this album was being planned, sans the two Ozzy tracks.  What a shame that would be.  Must be due to rights.  “Jack’s Land”  is a driving song, made all the more powerful with Ozzy behind the mic.  Once again, his voice is manipulated for effect.

The core riff of “Living Naked” could have found a home on many a Sab platter, but the song is otherwise very different from anything Sabbath have done.  This flows directly into “Music For A Raw Nerve Ending”, one of three songs written solely by Bill.  While there is a chugging guitar audible beneath the layers of vocals, piano and bass, it is not the driving force of the song.  Bill’s hypnotic vocal is.  And this song melds directly into “Tall Stories”, which continues the key hooks, adding Jack Bruce, even more hooks, and a soulful female backing vocal. There’s even a frickin’ didgery doo!

“Sweep” (also written solely by Bill) is a bright, fast little number, perhaps the most mainstream track on the album.  Bill’s speedy little drum pattern propels the song forward, all punctuated with an oddball guitar solo by Richard Ward (any relation?).   While the album is loaded with great tracks, it closes with one of the best, “Along the Way”, followed by Bill’s haunting “goodbye”.

There’s nothing straightforward about this album, but there’s plenty to be enjoyed.  Bill clearly had plenty of ideas to get off his chest, and often he chooses to load many ideas within a single song.  I remember it was one of the first major releases of 1990 and it definitely started the year off correctly.  (Thankfully, Bruce Dickinson followed it with his excellent solo album a couple months later!)

5/5 stars