First things first: goddamn that album cover makes me laugh! Its rendering offers a ridiculously proper and deft balance of the literal, the cheesy, the humorous and the “C’mon, are you fucking serious?!” The combination causes as wry a grin to appear on my face, as it likely did the boys in the band whenever its creator thrust the finished work before their unbelieving eyes. Plus, as indie-rock hipster douche-canoes have embarrassingly appropriated handlebar moustaches, making it so that the only person sporting one you won’t hate on sight is Rollie Fingers, it’s good to see Black Star Riders making use of old-timey iconography before a bunch of artisanal cheese shop employees discover medicine balls and Indian clubs and transform the strongman look into an insufferable image on the Greenpoint coffee shop scene. And thus concludes my rant…
For those not in the know, Black Star Riders emerged when Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham had new material kicking around which he initially intended to showcase on a new Lizzy album a couple of years back. Gorham and others were (and still are, for that matter) touring as Thin Lizzy and almost released an album before having a change of heart and respect for the fact that the heart of the band died with Phil Lynott, even if Gorham was a large part of the catalyst that brought them to more prominence with rock crowds during the mid-‘70s. Hence, Black Star Riders was born and despite being a super group of sorts – with members hailing from such notables as Ratt, Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies, the Almighty, Tuff, Lynch Mob, the Vince Neil Band, Y&T and more – the stylistic mood over the course of its short history has been about as Lizzy-ish as you’ll find anywhere. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though ironically, the lion’s share of the writing is credited to guitarist/vocalist Ricky Warwick and guitarist Damon Johnson, not Gorham. So, either the spirit of Lynott is doing some sort of paranormal guiding/mind-control thing, the pair are trying to emulate (subconsciously or not) the old ways of their new “boss” in order to get his approval, or the apples aren’t falling far from the tree when you have a spate of classics in your muscle memory (both gentlemen have appeared in the band’s recent touring roster). Either way, there are worse habits to have!
Three albums in and Heavy Fire continues the collision of down-to-earth pub rock and in-the-stadium-rafters anthems, though there’s definitely increase in the amount of individuation happening when compared to previous recordings. At the same time, who doesn’t love the dual guitar harmony runs, the thick, electrified, folk-referencing riffs, melodies with more hooks than Bob Izumi’s tackle box and smooth, grain alcohol-soaked vocals that were signature of Thin Lizzy at their peak? These are also sonic elements that BSR are very adept at, in converging and diverging ways.
When the band makes moves to assert elements of their own identity, feelings are mixed. On the one end, knowing that the true Thin Lizzy will never return, it’s good to hear someone who was part of the real deal (not a greasy cabal of former straight-edge hardcore dudes from Portland or Austin) offer up material in that inimitable style. On the other hand, some might ask why bother deviating from a sure thing if what comes out the back end is going to be tagged as inferior product, whether it is not? “Testify or Say Goodbye” and “When the Night Comes In” takes the halting chord progression style from their parent band's most recognizable works and adds in tinges of ‘60s soul (especially during the latter) to complement the wailing guitars. However, when they strip a similar song like “Ticket to Rise” of those old-school elements, there’s almost a neutered lack of impact that comes across like milquetoast hard rock grasping at straws. On the other side of the coin, a track like “Dancing With the Wrong Girl” could have bubbled up straight from Jailbreak or Johnny the Fox. The material on Heavy Fire that does step outside the circle generally presents as solidly constructed slices of hard rock that would likely rock hard regardless who was playing them. The title track has a definite southern swagger with a little bit of darkened and vintage Motley Crue while album closer “Letting Go of Me” incorporates some of the more memorable moments of Don Henley and Sammy Hagar’s solo careers (yes, that’s moments with an “s”!) to the track’s anthemic, beer-hoisting riffology. “Who Rides the Tiger” combines Sunset Strip testicle-swinging with an upbeat ‘90s alt-rock feel, though the driving bass and lightweight chord progression of “Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed” sounds more lackluster than the songs surrounding it because it unfortunately rehashes those years that hair metal bands failed miserably at toughening up their glossy glam image and sound. The balladic “Cold War Love” and “True Blue Kid” demonstrate that Black Star Riders are at their best when they’re rocking out, whether it’s stripped down moments or those in which layers of guitars are joined by keyboard lines and background singers.
In the end, Heavy Fire acts like a footbridge between Gorham’s days of yore, street-wise hair/street metal and the gritty formulas that have been driving rock ‘n’ roll since its inception. Often times you’ll hear the old and washed up go on about how rock will never die to other residents down at the active living housing complex; the same people who haven’t listened to or bought any new music since before you were born. When a record like Heavy Fire comes along, one created by veterans with a solid foundation that offers both solid tunes and room for growth, that’s when you can begin taking serious heed of anyone braying about rock ‘n’ roll’s enduring life force, something to which the album greatly contributes.