Album review: SUPERSONIC BLUES MACHINE – Californisoul


Provogue [Release date 20.10.17]

The all star Supersonic Blues Machine’s second album ‘Californisoul’ isn’t so much a concept as a feel and attitude, as revealed by the album title.

It’s all there in the sparkling interplay on a subtle melange of rock, blues and soul with the kind of deep grooves you might expect from a band helmed by drummer Kenny Aronoff and bass playing producer Fabrizio Grossi.

‘Californisoul’ is also a very organic album that leaves enough headroom for the grooves to bubble up, the solos to build and the hooks to sink in. Above all, the core trio successfully integrates 5 special guests into their own musical oeuvre.

All 5 guests subtly colour and shape an album that draws the listener into Lance Lopez’s impassioned vocals and the up in the mix bv’s from co-writer Sergei Ximic and Andrea and Francis Benitez Grossi.

Their vocal contribution is a part of a soulful layered sound that places the emphasis on songs that musically evoke the lyrical content.

The album is neatly topped and tailed by the reggae inflected relationship song ‘I Am Done Missing You’ and the exclamatory reggae continuum of ‘This is Love’, which leaves us in doubt as to the band’s deeply entrenched thematic concerns.

Grossi’s lilting bass and Aronoff’s meticulous precision locks into the groove, allowing Lopez’s expressive grainy vocal to rise above a choral opening and lead us into an album that makes a virtue of being organic, yet diverse.

Robben Ford’s appearance on the riff driven ‘Somebody’s Fool’ is an example of a guest artist stepping out of his comfort zone. He extends himself within the Supersonic template and some soaring slide on a track that could be Cream.

Steve Lukather similarly pushes the envelope on the imperious ‘Hard Times’, which features one of Lopez’s very best vocals. As soon as Aronoff drops in the beat, it’s a one way ticket to groovesville as the initial guitar lick gives us a teasing glimpse of what’s to come.

If the album is all about a musical journey down the West Coast, this track nails the feel and provides the imagery, but has Texas stamped all over it, as it comes close to that early 90′s Arc Angels sound.

The chorus kicks in a second time, as the combo rocks hard with a manic guitar part and then drops down to rebuild the song with coruscating riffs, that light the fuse to sundry possibilities, most of which are belligerently realized.

Then there’s Walter Trout. If Robben Ford earlier defied expectations and Eric Gales and Steve Lukather rip it hard, then Trout goes the opposite way, on a slow burning blues that digs deep for arguably one of the best slow blues songs he’s ever delivered with ‘What’s Wrong’.

Lance takes the lead vocal on this smouldering track. Walter’s part of the vocal duet doesn’t hit until just under the 2 minute mark, as the band steps things up to stoke up the tension. The two guitarist interweave eloquently to explore every nook and cranny of song with a stronger pull than a tidal current.

Billy F. Gibbons is closer to his own unique ZZ Top sound on ‘Broken Heart’ as is Eric Gales on the heavy duty, riff-led rumble of ‘Elevate’ which mixes big tones with soulful rocking blues, while Lance Lopez sounds like Poppa Chubby.

The real strength of the album though, is the way that each track and the 5 guests contribute to a great whole that never loses sight of the primacy of the song.

‘Love’ is a good example of this, opening with some blues harp bluster and a strong vocal from Lopez that leads into a chanted choral hook.

Lance Lopez is also a vocal tour de force on ‘Cry’, a song full of nuanced restraint, subtle bv’s and heartfelt lyrics. It is arguably one of the best things the band have done without guests. The production perfectly nails the dynamics without losing the spark that makes this band so essential.

‘The Stranger’ also builds a wall of sound, (albeit with additional vocoder and whoo-hooo bv’s), that is close to early 70′s Ten Years After, but with a contemporary mix.

‘Californisoul’ works well on different levels. It rocks hard, while mining deep grooves and leaves enough space for the songs to develop. Above all, the guests help broaden the band’s musical scope rather than dilute it.

‘Californisoul’ might also have given Fabrizio Grossi a cool crossover musical term that nicely nails the enduring appeal of rock-blues in Europe and the nouveau soul movement in the States.

I can think of very few other contemporary albums with the personnel, the songs and the chops to realize such adventurous ambition.  ****

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 20:00

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