June 20, 2024

…the funk-rock pairing of Stay Free unexpectedly exhuming the irresistible clavinet bounce of Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Underfoot with a chunky chorus to perfectly balance it. It’s the very distillation of the Hughes Blueprint for a funk-rock hybrid, and he’s rarely done it better.

I am quite certain that I will not be alone as a fan of Black Country Communion in being extremely surprised that this album even exists. When the band split in 2013 following the slightly disappointing Afterglow album, there was no shortage of bad blood being aired between, band members – and in particular, the twin figureheads of Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa. Hughes had publicly expressed his frustration with the lack of touring the band were able to undertake, and this was due in large part to Bonamassa’s own heavy schedule. When a planned Wolverhampton show was cancelled for the very reason that Bonamassa was unable to make it, Hughes hinted broadly that the band may be on its last legs. When one of those legs immediately amputated itself, as Bonamassa announced he was leaving and was happy to be doing so, allegedly refusing to let the other three use the name, most people assumed that three years or so had been a good run for a supergroup housing significant egos, and prepared to move on.

Fast forward four years to 2017, and there was a sort of Eagles ‘Hell Freezes Over’ moment when Bonamassa reached out to the others to reconcile their differences, and they recorded the fourth album which nobody expected, unimaginatively titled BCCIV, which contained a little more of the light and shade and musical eclecticism which had characterised the first couple of albums, and indeed I was even in attendance at a 2018 Wolverhampton show, which I never thought would happen after previously catching the band touring the second album. It didn’t last, however, as schedules once again began to bite, and BCC scattered to the four winds once again, Bonamassa continuing his relentless blues-rock odyssey and Hughes touring his Deep Purple material show around the world very extensively, and impressively.

Once again, however, the band have confounded expectations by reuniting yet again for this fifth album (once again, excitingly titled V). The original foursome were back, as pronouncements began being made about this being the ‘definitive’ BCC album, and their ‘high water mark’. Of course, it was never going to realistically be either of those things, but the potential was still there for it to be a very good album – and happily, so it is. Most of the tried and trusted BCC trademarks are present and correct here, the playing is as flawless as you would expect, and the songwriting is, for the most part, of an extremely high quality. So, what’s great about the album, and what could be earmarked as a ‘could do better’ moment on the report card? Well, in an odd sort of way, the answer would be the same for either question: namely, Glenn Hughes. On the plus side, he has rarely sounded better vocal-wise, only occasionally allowing his voice to showboat a little unnecessarily, and the songs have his distinctive stamp all over them. with his influence on proceedings writ large across the material. Where this positive also becomes its own problem is that the album at times begins to feel like a Glenn Hughes album (albeit an excellent one), rather than a true band effort. He handles all of the lead vocals, with Bonamassa not doing any, and this contrast was something which I always loved about the early albums in particular – the pair were almost like the Lennon and McCartney of the band, and that yin and yang element is just missing a little here. In essence, apart from one notable track, there is an air of Bonamassa playing some superb guitar (he could hardly fail to) on a Hughes recording, rather than stepping out stage front and making material his own.

BCC L-R: Bonamassa, Bonham, Hughes, Sherinian (photo: Rob Bondurant)

Don’t be thinking that this is a one-dimensional rock record devoid of variety, however, as that would be doing it a disservice. The opener Enlighten is a statement of intent and then some, kicking out a fiery groove with some of the finest vocals on the record, and some meaty guitar riffery. It’s a perfect opener, but just when you think that another in the exact same vein would be too much, the band oblige with the funk-rock pairing of Stay Free unexpectedly exhuming the irresistible clavinet bounce of Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Underfoot with a chunky chorus to perfectly balance it. It’s the very distillation of the Hughes Blueprint for a funk-rock hybrid, and he’s rarely done it better. The next song up, Red Sun, stretches out a little with more of an epic, widescreen feel to it, and is the longest track (by a second, but they all count!) on the album.

Where things really get interesting, however is on track four, Restless. The album’s only real foray into leisurely-paced blues, it has Bonamassa written through it like a stick of rock, with his soulful guitar grabbing things by the scruff of the neck right from the word go. He sounds like a man finally in his own beloved sandbox, and he is absolutely making it his own. Hughes sings it well, but there remains a feeling that, had Joe been handed the lead vocal, as on for example the debut album standout Song Of Yesterday, it might have been the better decision. A fine track, however. The fifth of the ten tracks, the fairly brief Letting Go, is a rather more simplistic AC/DC-style ripper, complete with Hughes channelling Bon Scott for all he’s worth! It’s okay for what it is, but the weakest track to this point, even though a strong, catchy chorus does redeem it to a large degree – and Derek Sherinian’s Hammond organ work is very welcome. The Bad Company groove of Skyway puts things right back on track, with a great Hughes vocal and some of the best Bonamassa soloing on the whole album, You’re Not Alone is another lesser song to these ears, full of thud and bluster without ever really taking flight, but never fear as Love And Faith gets us right back on track. The opening, with Sherinian’s Hammond fading in to usher a mighty burst of riffing conjures up prime 1970s Uriah Heep, especially when Bonamassa unleashes a steamroller wah-wah drenched guitar attack. Another epic feel lifts the track even further, and overall it’s a strong contender for the best song here, and the one which misses out on the ‘longest track’ award by a single second, at 6.32. The penultimate Too Far Gone is another from the AC/DC school of stomp, but is saved by a strong and powerful chorus, and the record is probably about ready for a balls-out rocker anyway – and Jason Bonham really does conjure up his father’s spirit in these moments. There is a sense that the closing track has to be something a bit different to set the seal on the record though, and The Open Road does a decent job of it. Marrying another funky, soulful song structure which really does kick its feet up in a quite contagious manner, it gives way mid-song to a bit of gold-standard Bonamassa soloing and a proper rock gallop, before seeing things out by bringing the soul again.

So, overall this is a very good rock album by anyone’s standards, with a nice proportion of funk and a little bit of blues to leaven it. At the end, however, I just felt that the four disparate talents in the band could have been utilised a little more to bring them all to the fore a little more than it does. A couple of songs more in the vein of the first two BCC albums, like Song Of Yesterday, The Battle Of Hadrian’s Wall, Cold, or the extended stretching out of the eleven-minute Too Late For The Sun might have sprinkled just a little of that indefinable magic which surrounds BCC at their very best. It feels very much as though Glenn Hughes is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here, whereas on earlier albums an alchemy has been in evidence taking the songs to another level. Make no mistake, if this was a Glenn Hughes solo album, it would sit somewhere at the top of the tree, as it sounds like his vision driving 90% of it – even if that might be a misleading impression. As a Black County Communion album, however, it just misses the very top table for that same reason. Although it certainly might be the best since BCC2, a full twelve years ago – and perhaps in the grand scheme of things that really should be seen as a pretty darn good ranking.