I’m genuinely not sure if it’s a good or bad thing when my first reaction to the opening track here, ‘Downtown’ has me going “Firebird!” I mean nice company to be sure, but such an immediate and strong connection? It is, though. Not that Firebird own the patent on loose, laid back blues rock, you understand but the nice, bouncy basic light rock and blues lines and slightly gravely tones are kissing cousins at the least. Nice, hooky song too.
The second song ‘Free’ is a lot less bluesy: A little drive to the straighter riff which steers it more into hard rock territory. Not as catchy for me and the guitar work on the musical interlude is spot on but lacks that delicate almost off the cuff touch that truly wrings the emotion from songs. The organ sounds do not make up for this either. And before you say anything, yes I am being hyper-critical. It’s for twofold reasons: Firstly this is so polished, so professional that it is seriously asking to be put up there with the greats and secondly; because with music like this the touch is everything. Go to old J J Cale, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Rait (yes, damn you Bonnie Rait) and then tell me I’m wrong.
It’s odd, this Zodiac album. Partly it’s almost, almost great. Partly it feels like hitting all the targets, just without the flourish that should grab me. I mean we get the deliberately quirky, slightly weird gone grim slow blues murmur of ‘Beneath My Bed’ which just didn’t work its magic on me, and neither did the Neil Diamond-isms of ballad ‘Leave Me Blind’. Then we get ‘Moonshine’ which turns everything around and, until the lead which I still don’t care for totally despite the obvious huge talent, sounds like something from Katatonia’s Viva Emptiness played by Bill Steer which is just plain excellent.
Got the feeling I’m conflicted? Good because I am, particularly because the talent, the sheer musicianship here is so goddamned huge that nothing about it can be remotely described as bad. Honest I am not sure I have heard playing quite as accomplished as this all year. But this is an album not a guitar tutorial and songs like ‘Believer’ just never quite get there for me. And the worst thing? I may well end up being alone in this opinion as I can almost hear magazines like ‘Classic Rock’ losing their shit and loading superlatives onto the truck. I think I can probably even hear a couple of Ave Noctum scribes amidst almost doing the same.
Maybe it’s the vocals; lovely tone to be sure, balanced between tune and enough grit to keep the real world in mind but just miss hitting that emotional weak spot that hits you in the gut.
How about this? The closing track is a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’. A stone cold, emotional, haunting classic that I recognised in two notes. It doesn’t work. Not for me, not at all and encapsulates the problem I have with the entire album. The guitar work is frankly superb, but that touch, those imperfections that tear out your soul aren’t there; the vocals are technically better than Young’s but Young’s trump them at every turn and this is not so different a cover that it carves out its own space away from comparison.
In the end all I can say is that this album should be listened to by anyone with a love of blues rock without hesitation. Seriously. However to my old ears it simply had me running back to my old collection as though it hits all the numbers for me it misses the count.