Album review: NINE BELOW ZERO – Avalanche

Pete Feenstra chatted to Dennis Greaves for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio in October 2019.

Nine Below Zero - Avalanche

Absolute [Release date 04.10.19]

‘Avalanche’ is the first self penned album by Nine Below Zero in big band mode and it’s a revelation.

The pivotal founder members Dennis Greaves (vocal, guitar and songs) and Mark Feltham (harp and percussion) remain, but the expanded band delivers the most wide ranging Nine Below Zero album in its 40 year history.

The band has explored funk, Americana and soulful tinged material before – in Dennis’s case this would include his early 80′s stint with The Truth – but Nine Below has never enjoyed such diversity within the confines of one album.

They take us on wide ranging musical journey without losing their signature sound.  There are several reasons for this, from Greaves’s expressive phrasing and Feltham’s memorable harp flurries, to the crisp percussive drive provided by Sonny Greaves (Greaves Jnr.), while Charlie Austen also occupies an important role as a harmony, backing and lead vocalist.

She steps up for two solo spots of which the Glenn Tilbrook/Dennis Greaves penned ‘Ter Wit Ter Woo’ is easily her best, while ‘Recycle Me’ is probably a shade too ambitious, in spite of some nuanced horns and belated gospel style bv’s

The former flows mellifluously on the back of the harmony bv’s, while on the latter she doesn’t quite have the range to stamp her authority on a slow blues.

No matter, she’s an integral part of an album that successfully broadens the band’s musical oeuvre.

Nine Below’s back catalogue does offer musical antecedents to this new fledgling direction with songs like ‘Money Or The Man’ and ‘Wild Kicking Horse’, while the ‘It’s Never  Too Late’ album consolidated the song driven approach.

What makes ‘Avalanche’ that bit better is the combination of a cross genre approach, the fact that the big band is an essential part of the writing process, and the energy and creativity that a cross generational line-up offers. And Dennis Greaves is smart enough to tap into the creative possibilities to come up with something fresh and new.

The expanded line-up colours the arrangements. emphasizes the melodies and fattens the grooves to provide Greaves with the best possible showcase for some of the best vocals of his career.

The album opens with a trademark ‘I Wanna Be A Wanna Be’, which could almost be an autobiographical account of his youth, while ‘Breadhead’ evokes the band’s halcyon r&b days, nailed by Sonny Greaves whipcrack snare.

Then there’s the introductory boogie of ‘Austerity Blues’, on which Dennis’s lyrics pull no punches: “Zero hour contracts, minimum wage, things ain’t looking good in this day and age.”

This song is also notable for the contrast between the jaunty boogie into shuffle blues and the pessimistic lyrics.

The Hammond led funky groove of ‘Race To The Bottom’ – complete with sculpted wah wah, a brusque horn arrangement and an uplifting hook – is another highlight, as Dennis adds a warm timbre with some close to the mic phrasing.

‘Picture No Sound’ is an ebullient harp-led piece powered by an electric piano line and crisp percussive drive. Dennis’s vocal perfectly matches the lilting groove and is neatly offset by the descending ‘ooohs’ into the hook. Mark Feltham layers on more exquisite harp alongside Chris Rand’s sinewy sax solo and Greaves most intricate guitar styling. Lovely stuff.

There’s also room for a brace of American influenced tracks. The acoustic into electric ‘Roots And Wings’ employs a Neil Young style sludgy rhythm, which would have an anathema to the younger band, but ‘Avalanche’ is the work of a mature outfit that finds room for Chuck Leavell-style piano fills.

‘Zebulon’ also sparkles on the back of Greaves and Austen’s harmony vocals, while a combination of harp and accordion amplify the sonic detail.

‘Avalanche’ works so well because it always retains an essential linear feel, with each track flowing into the next one as part of a coherent whole.

They break new ground on the funky instrumental ‘Hey Siri (Go **** Yourself’), which provides the perfect showcase for some imperious harp and earthy sax, while the synth-led ‘One Of Sour, Two Of Sweet’ is a soulful Motown style duet, with an Isley Brothers style guitar break and a numerically chanted hook.

The musically diverse album is framed by a bristling production that highlights cool arrangements, sparkling solos and always emphasizes the grooves.

‘Avalanche’ is that rare thing, a real big band album on which the audio brush strokes are always a function of a bigger picture.

The closing New Orleans-into-Latino feel of ‘I Drink But I Don’t Get Drunk’, feels like a natural musical destination for a creative project that eloquently fulfils its creative potential.

‘Avalanche’ is a great contemporary British big band rhythm and blues album that refuses to pander to expectations. It’s a creative outpouring that forges its own style on its own terms and is an essential purchase. ****½

Review by Pete Feenstra

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 17 July.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 31 July 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 2 August 2022.

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