Photo Credit: Tony Mott
In decades past, the way that it worked was relatively simple: if a band sold records, it pretty much went without saying that they also sold concert tickets, and vice versa. However, nearly a score into the new century, this dynamic has been replaced with an almost church-and-state division, with rock bands still dominating the live scene, but generally taking a back seat to pop and hip-hop on the singles charts and radio airwaves.
Rival Sons are among the current stable of rock bands (along with Greta Van Fleet and others) who offer a fighting chance at leveling the playing field, and their new album Feral Roots suggests they’re now one release closer to making that happen. While pretty much all blues-based hard rock inevitably draws systematic comparisons to Led Zeppelin, Rival Sons are actually a lot closer in their sound to Zep protégés Bad Company, particularly in regards to Sons lead singer Jay Buchanan, whose vocals are unquestionably more reminiscent of the skillfully understated soul bravado of Paul Rodgers than those of prototypical human siren Robert Plant.
This is evidenced pretty much right out of the gate with the leadoff track “Do Your Worst,” which despite the title is one of the album’s best cuts, and Bad Company pretty much retains controlling interest over the Rival Sons sound on the title track. “Sugar on the Bone” starts off with a weirdly deceptive EDM-esque riff before going back to pure rock ‘n’ roll and sexually explicit lyrics which invoke Aerosmith, while “Look Away” opens with an acoustic instrumental before gradually working towards a riff which offers just a taste of King Crimson but overall more closely resembles 90’s era Soundgarden, who would seem to be Rival Sons’ more recent major influence.
“Imperial Joy” lives up to its name as the album’s most memorable track, particularly the bridge and chorus which suggest the very same Beatles influence that’s served Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters so well for nearly a quarter-century. On the same song, guitarist Scott Holiday serves up a solo that would have made George Harrison gently weep with pride (bassist Dave Beste and drummer Mike Miley comprise Rival Sons’ utterly solid rhythm section). The lengthy instrumental outro on “All Directions,” goes a bit more in the direction of a different Wilbury of the traveling variety (Jeff Lynne); and on the subject of unexpected detours, the verse of “End of Forever” just touches upon the more produced, echo-y sound of more modern hit makers like the Chainsmokers.
Yet as of this writing, Feral Roots has peaked on the U.S. album chart at #139. So just what could possibly be standing between Rival Sons and a larger audience? The aforementioned Beatles kept everyone’s attention by constantly diversifying their sound, and it’s possible that at this point what Rival Sons offer musically is just a bit too centralized. They have branched out in some different directions in the past, with songs like the Brit-pop inspired “Good Luck” or the more progressive “Belle Star” (both from the 2015 release Great Western Valkyrie). Rivals Sons haven’t been around long enough – or exposed enough – to have anyone clamoring for them to get back to their own beginnings, which only even came to pass during the Obama administration. On the current track “Back in the Woods” Buchanan sings: “I know that mountain like the back of my hand.” But are Rival Sons climbing it just because it’s there?
Still, when taken – and listened to – as an entity by itself, Feral Roots proves that Rival Sons can rival or even best nearly any of their contemporaries. Any band which musically splits the difference between Soundgarden and Bad Company could only provide sound in company for an era that wants to believe that rock ‘n’ roll is not only alive and well but has a sustainable future.