July 24, 2020

Ok, I need to start by saying I like Blues Pills a lot, the first two albums were both great in slightly different ways, and I was wowed when seeing them live in late 2018. But…..I have to confess to being curiously underwhelmed by some of this, their third slab of heavy psychedelic blues-rock. I was hooked by the heaviness of their first self-titled album, and then entranced by the psychedelic soul of Lady In Gold, but on this third dose of the Pills, the medication just didn’t initially kick in the way I expected it would. But it’s a grower, my questions perhaps relate to sound production and song sequencing…more on that in a moment.

Holy Moly! will be released on 21st August after a bit of a hiatus, it having been delayed in April due largely to Covid-19. The album was self-produced and recorded by the band, steered by the band’s “co-driver” Zack Anderson with some helping hands along the way from The Hives’ Nicolaus Arson and Johan Gustafsson, and then mixed by the Grammy Award-winning Andrew Scheps (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, Adele, Black Sabbath, Rival Sons, Hozier).

One of the features of the first two albums was the gorgeously fluid blues playing by the youthful guitarist Dorian Sorriaux (he was only 18 when appearing on the first album). After Lady In Gold was released in 2016, and after prolonged heavy touring, Dorian left the band on amicable terms in November 2018, with Zack Anderson moving to guitar. In October 2019, Kristoffer Schander joined the band on bass, completing the current line-up.

Blues Pills has always revolved around Swedish co-songwriters Zack Anderson and Elin Larsson, the band being formed by them in 2011 in Mid-West America. Fronted by Elin’s soulful and powerful voice and producing some lovely 70’s-soaked heavy psychedelic blues-rock, they were quickly feted for their passionate, retro sound and barnstorming live gigs. A true success story – or maybe too much, too soon, for too long? Ever since then, the band has been on a non-stop international rock and roll journey fueled by a half a dozen singles, a trio of EPs, four acclaimed full-length albums, and hundreds of live concerts. By the band’s own admission, however, they were exhausted and drained by all this, and you can easily see how young Dorian perhaps needed to catch up on the rest of his life.

Andre, Elin, Kristoffer, Zack

With Zack Anderson now on lead guitar, and still pushed on by Larsson’s incredible voice, the band has gone back to their roots. Back to the basics, back to the raw power of rock’n’roll and blues with a pinch of soul, back to their home turf of Närke, Sweden where they built themselves their own studio. The result of all this soul-searching has been something of a reincarnation for the band, that has led to a new self-produced and recorded album, with Elin, Zack and André spending most of their waking hours during their “break” writing songs, recording and changing things around. And maybe that’s the problem, perhaps they’ve simply got too far inside their heads and not taken the opportunity to chill out?

I say this because although some of the songs are very strong, I find the mix is often too muddy (drums in particular, like playing through blancmange!), and the album’s ordering of track selection could be better. I can see they’re aiming for a VERY retro sound, but there are limits before the sound suffers. Andrew Sheps know his stuff on the mixing desk, so I can only conclude that in going back to basics, both Elin and Zack are simply trying too hard? And, I have to say, there’s a few places on here where I initially missed Dorian’s guitar work, before fully appreciating just how much Zack’s playing has grown. The opening track Proud Woman distills some of these ponderings, and I personally just don’t think it’s a strong enough intro to an album (although I would hesitate to say that to Elin’s face!).

The second track Low Road is better, but just as muffled. There’s some nice playing from Zack, but the rockiness is diluted by the splish-sploshing that passes for percussion! It’s one thing going for a 60’s sound, but you don’t have to have 60’s sound quality, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was recorded in mono! The PR material is off-kilter here, suggesting the track is a dead-ringer for Deep Purple Mk2. Very early Mk1 would be much closer to the mark, production-wise, complete with lofi Harvest recording (now there’s a swirly green and yellow blast from the past!!). However, it’s worth pointing out that, strangely, the sound on these two videos seems cleaner than the preview material supplied.

After this inauspicious start, things do begin to improve. The hard rock Dreaming My Life Away is a stomping belter of a track nicely redolent of Sabbath and Zeppelin, the fuzziness working well here. It’s followed by the slow soulful blues of California, the drop in pace being key to making the difference between an emotionally draining blues beauty that’s up there with Alabama Shakes, Black Crowes and The Faces; and the earlier muddy wading!

Next is Rhythm In The Blood, a very lively slice of fuzzy garage rock that conjures up visions of late 60’s Beat Club performances. Close your eyes and you can imagine the attendant crazy psychedelic backgrounds! Dust is a slow pounding, gritty blues-soul with some great guitar work from Zack. He really is great when he lets go like this, forgets the production blurb and just has fun making his guitar sing. Kiss My Past Goodbye is another in-your-face ‘attitude rocker’, punchy and edgy, full of vim and vigour.

Wish I’d Known is another slow groove – think Beatles Don’t Let Me Down. A quiet intro is illuminated by some very delicate guitar work and wracked vocals, again strongly reminiscent of Alabama Shakes at their very best. Bye Bye Birdie is another song straight out of a 60’s Club, everything a bit distorted but it works here even if drums sound like they’re in a cardboard box! Song From a Mourning Dove is another very plaintive ‘tinkley’ start before the Janis Joplin effect kicks in. This is ‘Soul-Blues’ at its retro best though, again some mesmerising, angst-soaked guitar licks driving it to a conclusion, it’s great stuff! Longest Fasting Friend then closes the album, it’s quite introspective, a bit of a downer in fact, not what you’d expect them to go out with.

So – Blues Pills’ influences have always been a cauldron of steaming, raw, heavy rock, and you could be forgiven for assuming this album mines the same vein. It is strange, it feels as though the band has gone too heavily on the retro angle in production terms for several of the tracks, whilst having a surprising number of slow, ‘soul-bluesy’ laments towards the end. Somehow, the album has less of that clashing rock and roll strut, never quite sustains the heights found on its predecessors, and I wonder whether a different ordering of the tracks would give a different, more enveloping vibe?

I started by saying I love Blues Pills, and that’s why for me the album does have some shortcomings. It’s retro-rock, bluesy, but not quite as full-on heavy as from previous works? It’s certainly not a bad album, and it does grow on you. I’m sure the next one will be a monster, in the meantime their shows should be as good as ever!