ABOUT BLACK STONE CHERRY–
They say you can’t go home again. But Black Stone Cherry proves otherwise on KENTUCKY, the quartet’s fifth album and most diverse and mature — not to mention dynamically exciting — effort to date.
A decade ago, Black Stone Cherry made its attention-grabbing self-titled debut at David Barrick’s Barrick Recording near their hometown of Edmonton, KY. It proclaimed the arrival of a vibrant and exciting new force in Southern rock ‘n’ roll, a group that played with fire, sang with brimstone and had plenty of cajones — what other young band, after all, is willing to take on something as iconic as the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” on its first album?
Flash forward nine years and the BSC crew — still guitarists Chris Robertson and Ben Wells, bassist Jon Lawhon and drummer John Fred Young — found themselves back at Barrick, which had relocated and modernized a bit during the intervening years, although its analog mixing board hails from EMI’s legendary Abbey Road studios in London. This was hardly the same group of fresh-faced rock nubiles that made the BLACK STONE CHERRY album, either; they’d traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on six continents, written scores more songs and even jousted a bit with the industry. They’re family men and homeowners, too — still rockers to the core but well aware of the “real world” outside the tour bus. So they came into KENTUCKY — the quartet’s first release for Mascot Records — more seasoned, battle-savvy and focused, ready to come back home and turn everything they’d learned into a set of ambitious and fearless new music.
“There’s all this freedom because it’s just us producing it this time,” says Robertson. “We’re doing it like we did that first one; people still rave about that record, our fans do. But a decade later we’re all older, more mature. We all feel like better musicians and songwriters. But even though we’re older now it’s got a certain element of youth about it that you just can’t escape. It’s the most interesting album we’ve done thus far.”
Young adds that, “Man, it was perfect, the experience of getting to record here at home, being with our families, having the opportunity to record with David Barrick again and with all that amazing gear he has. You can never really go back to, ‘Oh, I’m 17 again. I don’t know how to perfectly tune a guitar or hit the perfect drum lick.’ But you can mix some of that into what you are now. We just had a blast and didn’t hold anything back.”
Then again, BSC is hardly known for restraint, something anyone who’s seen the group blaze through any of its live shows can attest to. The story starts on June 4, 2001, in Edmonton, KY, when Robertson and Young, musical playmates since they were teens, were joined by Wells and Florida transplant Lawhon. Encouraged by musician relatives (Young’s dad Richard and uncle Fred are two of the Kentucky HeadHunters), the fledging troupe cut its musical teeth at the Practice House, a 1940s bungalow — pictured on the cover of KENTUCKY — that had been relocated to a remote field by Young’s grandparents. Used first by the HeadHunters and then BSC – its walls covered with posters, concert tickets and other memorabilia – it was as much of a learning space as the high school the four attended.
“We’d go there and sit and smoke cigarettes and jam on Nirvana and AC/DC, Skynyrd songs and Pantera, try to play Led Zeppelin songs,” Young remembers. “It was perfect, man. The closest neighbor was, like, more than a mile away, so we could make as much noise as we wanted, any time we wanted. It was a great way to become a band.”
After releasing the independent “Rock N’ Roll Tape” demo, BSC’s burgeoning reputation got the group a label deal, and BLACK STONE CHERRY was followed by FOLKLORE AND SUPERSTITION, BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and MAGIC MOUNTAIN, which spawned rock radio favorites such as “Lonely Train,” “Blind Man,” “White Trash Millionaire” and “Me and Mary Jane.” The group’s muscular style and homespun attitude connected particularly well overseas, where its last three albums hit No. 1 on the U.K. rock charts — MAGIC MOUNTAIN debuted Top 5 on the U.K. album chart overall – making that the perfect place to film and record the scorching concert souvenir “THANK YOU LIVIN’ LIVE, BIRMINGHAM UK OCTOBER 30, 2014.
“For us it’s realizing we’re a live band — that’s where people are really sold on us and where we cut our teeth,” says Wells. “So in writing the riffs and writing the songs for KENTUCKY, we had that in mind. We’d say ‘OK, how is this gonna go over live in a festival setting? How is this gonna go over live in a club? Is this what our fans expect?’ That was our whole mindset, just to get back to where we were when we first started and ‘Let’s not overthink this. Let’s go in there and make the riffs cool and heavy. Let’s just do it.'”
KENTUCKY does it from the get-go, letting loose with the meaty groove of the appropriately named “The Way of the Future,” and fellow heavyweights such as “Shakin’ My Cage,” “Rescue Me,” “Hangman” and the metallic “In Our Dreams,” which was co-written with Bob Marlette (Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Seether, Saliva). “We wanted to write a song to show the struggle people faced in a situation of disparity, who when presented with danger and chaos could rise above the physical world and escape to another dimension of peace,” explains the band of “In Our Dreams.” The group’s rendition of Edwin Starr’s Motown classic “War,” besides being eerily timely, features a full brass attack from Jonas Butler and Ryan Stiles, while “Soul Machine” shows that BSC knows how to get a deeply funky groove, complete with backing vocals by Sandra Dye and Toynnia Dye. “Long Ride,” meanwhile, is a testament of devotion, whose anthemic chorus will have fists pumping into the air whenever the group pulls it out in concert.
“The songs came off more pure and not forced on this album,” says Lawhon. “A lot of bands will get very political about things and be like, ‘We need this kind of song’ or ‘We need this batch of songs for this part of our audience’ and so on. With us, we just write. Once we feel like we’ve got the record, that’s when we sit back and think about marketing angles and all that. The songs come first and foremost.”
The emotional crucible of the album, meanwhile, comes via the wrenching “When Your Heart Breaks Down,” a richly melodic co-write with former Shinedown guitarist Jasin Todd that takes stock of some of the costs that come with BSC’s chosen life but also offers comfort to those left back home. “It’s just about heartbreak and being a true rebel spirit at heart,” explains Young. “We all knew the song was special, and when we were in the studio writing it Chris lost his grandpa, and he got pretty emotional when he was putting his vocal on it. It’s a really wonderful song.”
BSC is particularly proud that KENTUCKY was not only made at home but also features a corps of hometown players adding their magic to the songs, including Chris Carmichael (strings), Paul Hatchett (organ), Chad Lockhart (vocals), Boone Frogget (vocals), and Andrea Tanaro (vocals). “This album IS Kentucky,” Robertson says with palpably fierce pride. “Everyone who plays on it is from Kentucky. It’s in their blood just like it’s in ours, and they added so much to the record.”
KENTUCKY will, of course, send BSC away from Kentucky and back to its second home on the road, with a fresh batch of songs Lawhon notes, “were meant to be played live.” And it’s key to remember that it’s the same four guys playing it now as it was in Edmonton, when they were wet behind the ears and ready to put on some miles.
“It’s cool we’ve been able to be the same four guys just doing it, putting out albums. You don’t see that many bands who are the same members after all these years,” says Wells. “We’re friends first, and from the beginning it’s always been four equals. That’s what’s kept us together. We’re all in it, all on the team. It takes four of us to lead the band, not just one.” And, Robertson adds, everyone in BSC shares the same credo.
“Music is life, life is music,” he says. “It’s faith, family and music. Those are the things that are quintessential for my life — for all our lives.”
ABOUT CITIZEN ZERO–
When done honestly, rock ‘n’ roll can stick with you for a lifetime. It rides shotgun for the whole way, soundtracking those big moments and memories. Once you hear a Citizen Zero song, you remember it.
The Detroit rock outfit–Josh LeMay [vocals], Sammy Boller [lead guitar], John Dudley [drums], and Sam Collins [bass]–deliver arena-size anthems fueled by intricate musicianship on their full-length debut album, State of Mind [Wind-up Records]. Striking a balance between edgy grunge attitude a la Stone Temple Pilots and bluesy alternative expanse reminiscent of Kings of Leon, their knack for a hook immediately resonated with a growing national fan base.
“We really focus on writing great songs,” says Josh. “That’s where the connection comes from. People can see that it’s real. There was no plan B for us. If we did this, it was going to be all or nothing.”
Since the release of their first independent EP Life Explodes in 2012, the band has played alongside heavyweights such as Kid Rock, ZZ Top, Halestorm, Royal Blood, Highly Suspect, and more. “Life Explodes” would win the Detroit Music Award for “Outstanding Rock/Pop Recording” in 2013. As their profile rose regionally, they signed to Wind-up Records in early 2016.
Along the way, they cut State of Mind, a record that heralds their arrival with a bang.
“I think the best music comes from the most honest place,” continues Josh. “Being from Detroit, there’s a no fly zone for bullshit. You have to be real, or the people will know. State of Mind is one-hundred percent who we are.”
“That’s something all of us grew up with,” affirms Sam. “It’s the mindset around here.”
The first single “Go (Let Me Save You)” builds from an eerie melody into an overpowering refrain punctuated by an incendiary guitar lead and hypnotic vocal.
“It’s actually the first song Sammy and I wrote together,” Josh remembers. “It happened right after the Sandy Hook tragedy. I was watching the news, and I couldn’t believe how the cameramen were consciously filming crying parents. It was so wrong. Having gone through tragedy, it made me really angry. I had to say something.”
Elsewhere on the record, “When The Rain Comes” couples six-string fireworks with an unshakable chorus that’s both uplifting and undeniable.
“I always wanted to live in Seattle because it rains all the time,” laughs Josh. “The song is literally about how the rain is relaxing and soothing to me for some strange reason.”
Then, there’s “Love Let It.” Tempering an unpredictable sonic backdrop with another powerhouse hook, it holds a special place in the musicians’ hearts.
“It’s the most personal to me,” admits Josh. “When things were really bad, the song was a way to convince ourselves to let our love for what we do overcome everything else. I ended up tattooing ‘Fight to Love’ on myself because everything was a fight to maintain this dream. We thought it would be unacceptable to give up.”
They never have given up–even in the face of the unimaginable. Just as they began rolling in 2012, Citizen Zero endured a tragedy that would shake their brotherhood to its very core.
“John’s brother Matt was our original lead guitar player,” says Josh. “One day he told me he couldn’t make our session, and I didn’t hear back after. A few hours later, John called and told me Matt had committed suicide. It took a bit to get back on our feet, and I couldn’t even imagine a world where John went on without him.”
“After he passed, I didn’t stop playing,” adds John. “I knew he wouldn’t want me to quit. From the beginning, I had to keep going for myself and for Matt.”
Regrouping, the boys turned to YouTube as they sought out someone to fill those big shoes. Searching “Best Detroit Guitar Players,” they found a video of Sammy. At their first audition, everything clicked.
“As soon as I walked in and heard them warming up, that was it,” recalls the guitarist. “John cracked the snare, and it was on. The chemistry was there right away. I knew we were on to something special.”
It’s going to be special for listeners everywhere as well. Their name ultimately hints at big and very attainable ambitions for the band.
“Every generation has a leader who changes things for better or worse,” concludes Josh. “Citizen Zero represents the faceless citizen. It’s the everyday person no better than any of us. However, that any one individual can change the world.”
“We can be the Citizen Zero in rock ‘n’ roll,” John leaves off. “We can be the guys who help bring back musicianship and unforgettable live shows.”
ABOUT LETTERS FROM THE FIRE–
“These are our stories our trials and tribulations. This is who we are.”That’s Mike Keller, the guitarist/founder behind the Bay Area rock powerhouse Letters From the Fire, explaining his band’s moniker. Ostensibly lifted from an old lyric, the phrase now serves as both a reminder of the band’s sometimes turbulent origin–as well as a rallying cry as the group moves forward and (re)introduces themselves to the music world.
While Letters From the Fire has existed for a bit, the group only recently solidified a lineup that best represents Keller’s original vision (the band is rounded out by Alexa Kabazie, Cameron Stucky, Clayton Wages and Brian Sumwalt). The band found a modicum of early success doing national tours with the likes of Fuel, Trapt, Non Point and Pop Evil, recording with former Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody and scoring a few rock radio hits (“Zombies in the Sun,” a cover of “Eleanor Rigby”).But singer changes abounded… until they met Alexa Kabazie.
“We heard about this singer from Kyle Odell, this producer we were working with,” says Keller. “She was killing it on the demos we heard. We had to fly to North Carolina just to see if she could do it in person. She nailed the audition literally on the first try. Two weeks later, we already had seven songs ready to go. She’s a star in the making.” With Kabazie now helping out on melody and lyrics, the band shifted gears. “She was all over the heavy stuff,” says Keller. “We actually scratched a lot of stuff and wrote around her voice. It’s interesting what she brings, because we’re not really like In This Moment or Halestorm or anything you’re hearing in rock right now.”
You can hear the band’s new focus on Worth the Pain, 13 new songs that offer a beguiling mix of melody and heaviness. Along the way, the album offers twists and turns: The slow piano build of “At War” gives way to the harsher realm of “Control,” while the heavy groove of “Last December” co-exists near the perfect mix of pop and aggression in “Mother Misery.” Throughout, Kabazie sounds both defiant and reflective, stating “I’ve been a soldier in every battle except my own” and, in the title track, simply stating “Thank you for walking away.” There are wounds here.
“The record is full of stories,” says Keller. “And this is the first time I really felt something lyrically when we were writing the record. Alexa actually says what she means. Her songs actually have helped me get through a lot of my own personal shit.”The first single, “Give In to Me,” a pummeling mix of electronics and heavy guitar, centers around a person who has an addiction that gives into their dark side. To compliment the song, the video features a mysterious stranger torturing a prisoner, who (Fight Club-esque spoiler alert) ends up being themselves.
After the video and album release, the band plans to hit the road for the foreseeable future, concentrating on the now. “We’re just going to play the new stuff,” says Keller. “Shed the past, let this stand on its own.” Expect the album’s title track to be a highlight. Like the band’s name, it seems to summarize the group’s early struggles and present triumphs. “With everything we’ve gone through, we kept fighting,” says Keller. “There were times we were so close to giving up and moving on. At the end of the day, it’s been worth the struggle and the fight to do this.”