Blacktop Deluxe [Release date 11.09.15]
‘Presence & Gain’ is a well crafted blues/rock album by a band that has earned its right to be in the spotlight.
Previously touring under the moniker of Blue On Black, Blacktop Deluxe have paid their dues. They’ve done the road miles and as the title of their previous album, ‘Turn Up, Be Nice, Play Hard’ suggests, they know the ins and outs of the bread and butter blues circuit.
‘Presence & Gain’ is their breakthrough album. It’s superbly played, excellently produced and showcases Keith Howe’s song writing prowess and his musical vision. He’s clearly stockpiled some of his most significant experiences and poured them into 11 cuts and two bonus tracks to realize his musical ambition.
The band is at its best on the heartfelt ‘One Step At A Time’, as they match their musical sweep with lyrical depth and one of Keith Howe’s best vocal performances. The hugely impressive stab at Americana on ‘Right Side of Wrong’ is the perfect retort to anyone who doubts a UK band’s ability to tap into the darkest cinematic narrative: “Just this side of midnight, you’ll hear that screen door slam. And sitting on your front porch, will be your back door man.”
It all clicks together seamlessly and you get a snapshot of what the band is aiming for. There’s real passion, feel, drive and disciplined playing, counterweighted by a rock edge that is given enough breathing space by an intuitive production.
Founder member, songwriter and guitarist Keith Howe and drummer Alan Ibbotson have worked together for longer than they both probably care to remember, but they provide the rock from which bassist Rob Martin and producer and bass playing keyboard player Gareth Young nail the band’s essential sound.
The result is a sparkling Brit blues-rock album that will surely bring them a raft of new fans.
Young is the ace in the pack. His meticulous production gives the album sonic substance and extra bite. Listen to the slick intro and harmony vocals of the funky ‘It Don’t Work Like That’ (as well as the remixed radio friendly bonus track), and you are hearing a perfectly synchronised band and producer.
The Americana influenced ‘Right Side of Wrong’ features a delightful percussive pattern and train-time intro from drummer Ibbotson. Then there’s the pristinely mixed, waltz time and Pink Floyd feel of ‘Gibraltar Barn’, complete with Young’s drifting piano line.
The tracks are collated as part of a thoughtfully sequenced album which emphasizes flow, balanced diversity and subtly shapes the band’s kick-ass rock/blues instincts.
The album opens with ‘Crank It Up’, which is essentially the band’s mission statement: “Back in the days when the Combo was King, the Bass it would groove while the Guitar would sing. No need to hold hands it was fend for yourself, Cut to the chase or get left on the shelf.”
Howe’s slide playing and harmony singing also gives ‘Black Jack’ a seamless feel, before an unexpected tempo change with a deeply wrought sludgy guitar break. They rock out on the big toned ‘Chasing Snakes’ as Keith gives us an ironic insight to the band’s on line marketing strategy: “Making friends we seldom see and just getting likes for you and me”.
‘Presence & Gain’ delivers more with each play, as a new arrangement of the former Blue On Black favourite ‘Man Down’ illustrates the quality of this album. It’s a homage to fallen guitar heroes that features Keith Howe in David Gilmour mode on a majestic solo that lifts the song and defines the album as a whole.
“He ‘Couldn’t Stand The Weather’, but he’s ‘Alright Now’. ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘The Stealer’, come in to take a bow.
‘Angel Eyes’ are watching him, down at ‘The Laundromat’, ‘Voodoo Chile’ at the ‘Crossroads’, he ain’t never lookin’ back.”
‘Presence & Gain’ is a significant album that restores your faith in the quality of the home grown rock/blues circuit. It’s an album made with real love and care and embodies all those elements that made blues/rock great in the first place. ****½
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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