Album review: BILLY WALTON – Dark Hour

Billy Walton - Dark Hour

Harmonized Records [Release date 04.09.20]

‘Dark Hour’ is a ground-breaking album for the Billy Walton Band. It kicks like a mule but also searches for soulful subtly.

‘Dark Hour’ also finds a meaningful role for the band’s horn section, beyond pumping out bar band boogie in Asbury Park.

The arrangements are ambitious and there’s always enough headroom to allow the whole of the extended combo to flourish.

From the related doomy song titles to the dense production and Walton’s own gnawing guitar work, it’s a big band project with a taut sound that eschews some of their good time feel for a more focused intensity.

It’s also a coherent set of songs that ultimately flows into the ‘People Talking’ instrumental outro – complete with Walton ad-libs – which feels like the perfect resolution to 12 tracks that initially adhere to the ‘Dark Hour’ theme, but eventually reach for the light in an exhilarating manner.

They approach the songs in a conceptual and organic way, with each track being part of a greater whole

The soulful ballad ‘Long Way Down’ for example, acts as a dynamic counter-balance to the previous denser tracks, as Walton brings a little extra steel into his solo.

There’s also meticulous attention to the sequencing, which is full of contrast and yet related songs. So having delivered a 5-star soul ballad they suddenly rock out on the feverish ‘Goldmine’. The latter is driven by high octane riffs, internal rhymes and a bombastic rhythm section, as Walton raps out his lyrics with real venom and indulges himself in some fine vibrato guitar playing.

The bristling arrangement is stretched to bursting point with booming horns on a hard driving stomp with a soulful centre, which probably mirrors their Philly recording environment.

‘Dark Hour’ is easily the band’s most ambitious album to date, in terms of material and a big production which provides Walton with new outlets for his incendiary guitar work.

A change of band members seems to have given the band a leaner edge. The opening brace of tracks may not be a template for the album as whole, but they lever us into a tight, harder edged direction that permeates the album as whole.

So while the brusquely counted in opener ‘Think Of Me’ is full of gnawing wah-wah guitar work and a rapid fire hook, and ‘Long Slow Descent’ is built on a power chord intro with a sweeping organ and a notable buzz-tone guitar, they are effectively sonic hors d’oeuvre’s for the bands more familiar funky fare.

The mid-paced funk and radio friendly ‘Can’t Love No More’ finds Walton in a more restrained vocal mode as he lets the song breathe.

Significantly, Eric Safka’s Hammond takes the first solo as they head into Robert Cray territory, before a defining Walton guitar break on one of the high points of the album.

And it’s the challenging way the album twist and turns through musical contrasts and big arrangements that makes it arguably the bands most interesting album so far.

‘You Don’t Need Me’ is illuminated by an ambitious production that incorporates a quiet-to-loud dynamic, crashing chords and a punchy hook, before unexpectedly leading us into a dirgy prog rock sounding guitar break.

Much like ‘Long Slow Decent’, the music appears to evoke the meaning of the song title. Walton’s screaming guitar lines burst out of the gloom before suddenly giving way to a echoey pedestrian piano coda which provides an ambivalent ending.

The taut production changes again on the clever electro-into-funk intro of ‘Confusion’, which is another album highlight. It’s a hip shuffling piece with a crisp undertow, funky keys and a fine vocal by William Paris, once again framed by nuanced horns.

The songs builds up a subtle tension with distant controlled feedback and volume swells. It’s punctuated by repeated horn lines and a return to the hook on a glorious track that somehow doesn’t have a guitar solo.

The resulting void is filled by the gospel tinged ‘Free World’ which is vehicle for one of Billy’s best vocals.

And if the album palpably gathers momentum on the big horn arrangement of ‘Funky Fever’, then the band belatedly lights the fuse with two unexpected covers.

The focus returns squarely to Walton’s own guitar playing on a rip-roaring cover of Gary Moore’s ‘Cold Day In Hell’, on which the horns are imperious. He further illustrates his versatility on the big toned version of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’.

He brings welcome clarity to the latter track which is stripped of its original grungy feel. He transforms it into an uplifting piece on which his guitar soars, before a gentle decent into a sonorous horn-led outro, in an imaginative reworking of the Young classic.

‘Dark Hour’ is easily the Billy Walton band’s finest hour. Despite the title, it’s far from being all doom and gloom.  It strikes the perfect balance between strong songs, a killer band and the impetus to find a fresh context for the former gunslinger for hire Billy Walton, as he impressively moves centre stage in his own right. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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