Rex Brown has never up until shown much inclination for being a solo artist. As a longstanding member of Pantera, having appeared on all of their albums from their long out-of-print Metal Magic debut to career-capping finale Reinventing the Steel, Brown also followed Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo to the latter's most prominent "other" project, Down, remaining with that band until 2011. At that time Brown did indeed start to get the itch to explore less aggressive forms of hard rock, leaving Down to found Kill Devil Hill with other prominent musicians Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath) and Johnny Kelly (Type O Negative, Danzig). Nonetheless, even that new venture showed Brown seemingly reluctant to spearhead a project fully under his own artistic stewardship, an impetus that is just now being realized 34 years after his vinyl debut with Smoke On This, where he swaps his trademark bass for a frontman-friendly six string guitar.
Whereas Kill Devil Hill offer a fairly commercial take on hard rock – a sort of loose agglomeration of post-grunge, modern rock and groove metal often referred to under the maddeningly non-specific genre tag "alternative metal" – Smoke On This dials the volume back even more. A more contemplative effort that often treads close to buddy Zakk Wylde's chiller moments, songs like "Fault Line" and "Grace" find Brown in balladry mode, with raspy, plaintive vocals and dialed back guitars trading jabs with fiery blues riffs and a general sense of Southern rock-inflected soulfulness.
"What Comes Around…" can't help but register as a jab at his former bandmates in Pantera considering the unflattering anecdotes that pepper Brown's concurrently released autobiography Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera (the existence of which may hint at Brown's belated decision to do a solo album). Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul has definitely taken exception to some of the stories, at least, and Brown's recent suggestion that Pantera have been "close" to reuniting over the past few years has been met with deafening silence from his former compadres.
Let's face it: Rex Brown would almost certainly have the least amount of leverage among the surviving Pantera members to negotiate such a thing, but lest his renewed media appearances lead one to believe that Brown's primary motive is to publicly push for a cash-infused reunion, Smoke On This would be a curious way to cap off that initiative. There is little musically on the bluesy, bar band hard rock of the album to remind much of anyone of this musician's former pedigree, in fact: tunes like "Lone Rider" and "Train Song" show a guy who has been soaking up equal parts ZZ Top and 90's radio rock ("Train Song" in particular sounds a bit like a weathered Collective Soul).
Perhaps the album's best moment comes early on in the album with "Buried Alive", which Brown cites as a personal take on what he went through after losing Dimebag. The song effectively avoids the maudlin cliches that one might expect in favor of a truly catch blend of acoustic verses and a harder rocking chorus complete with a jamming blues solo. This one actually reminds me in a good way of Kenny Wayne Shepherd back when Noah Hunt was still singing for him.
However, "Best of Me" may have the biggest chorus on the entire album, the only one really that inspires a full throated singalong at least. The rest of the song backs it up, too, a gentle, rainy day display of patient musical interplay that erupts into that anthemic chorus. Shouts out to Lance Harvill and Christopher Williams, who helped out on instrumentation, and producer Caleb Sherman, who brings a hit radio sheen to Smoke On This without laying things on too thick. Aside from "Best of Me", this calculated restraint can also be heard to great effect in album closer "One of These Days".
That said, in between those borderline great songs lie a lot of ineffective, undercooked hard rock songs that Rex Brown's thoroughly shot voice does little to rescue. "Lone Rider" and "Crossing Lines" have predictable 90's groove riffs and vocal patterns/lyrics that mostly just want to make you go back and revisit older, better shit. "Get Yourself Alright" and "Grace" are a little bit better but still familiar-sounding to really draw anyone in.
Smoke On This has enough strong moments to at least halfheartedly recommend it, but far too few to make it essential. Hopefully by his next solo album – assuming there is one – Rex Brown more fully identifies his strengths and jettisons his misguided affinity for simple modern rock riffs. In the meantime, inconsistency mars what is often a promising debut.