Album Review: Black Star Riders - 'The Killer Instinct'.
First up, a confession. With their Northern Irish born frontman and ties to Ireland’s greatest ever rock band, Black Star Riders boast much that could easily positively sway an Irishman such as this reviewer. On the other hand, such is the gravity of the shadow cast by the much loved, respected and missed Phil Lynott that there are those who have never forgiven the five-piece for originally intending to record and release their first album under the Thin Lizzy name. This writer however, falls into neither camp, and although the year may be a little under two months old, it is without prejudice that I can declare that ‘The Killer Instinct’ might just be the best rock album that you’ll hear all year.
Proudly continuing the legacy of Thin Lizzy, with a colourful and illusive history behind them plus one release under their own banner, Black Star Riders have never sounded more sure footed. Where their debut ‘All Hell Break’s Loose’ was workmanlike and set out their stall appropriately, ‘The Killer Instinct’ takes things to a whole new level. By now, many will have heard the rollicking title track which opens the album. Featuring killer hooks, lyrical sloganeering and storytelling – along with, of course trademark harmony guitar lines - it’s the perfect distillation of the Black Star Riders sound. As a taster for the album it sets things up nicely, and although ‘Bullet Blues’ deviates little from this winning formula, there’s much more to ‘The Killer Instinct’ than straight ahead hard rock.
It’s with ‘Finest Hour’ that the album really starts to open up. When vocalist Ricky Warwick sings “This Could Be Our Finest Hour”, he does so with conviction, on his most believable performance since The Almighty’s ‘Crank’ some twenty years ago. Warwick’s confidence is no doubt boosted by the consummate musicians that surround him. As a unit working in perfect synergy, guitarists Scott Gorham and Damon Johnson complement each other, while the rhythm section of drummer Jimmy DeGrasso and newcomer Robbie Crane anchor the entire performance. This is none more apparent than on the tribal rhythmic pounding of ‘Soldierstown’. A song lyrically centred around Northern Ireland’s troubled dark days – a subject close Warwick’s heart - it is also perhaps the most Thin Lizzy sounding track on the album, with more than a little in common with the warring Irish clans of ‘Emerald’.
It’s midway through the album that ‘The Killer Instinct’ throws in a few musical curve balls, starting with the outstanding ‘Charlie I Gotta Go’. A funky slice of R&B, it’s the most unexpected and refreshing track on the album. Incredibly catchy despite its subject matter about Charles Manson, it sits somewhere between Thin Lizzy’s ‘Johnny The Fox’ and ‘Still In Love With You’. The epic ballad ‘Blindsided’ which follows meanwhile, is the album’s centrepiece, and it’s simply stunning. With restrained verses interspersed by some truly heart wrenching soloing from both Johnson and Gorham, its choruses expand into glorious widescreen vistas. The most emotive track on the album, it’s also its highlight.
The pairing of ‘Through The Motions’ and ‘Sex Guns & Gasoline’ bring the album back to business as usual. As straightforward rockers, although neither are stand-out tracks, they’re far from filler. ‘Turn In Your Arms’ meanwhile, sees the band once more explore their funky side, with generous lashings of guitar harmonies on top. However it’s on gargantuan closer ‘You Little Liar’ that Black Star Riders really get to flex their musical muscle. The longest track on the album at a little over seven minutes, it’s a dark masterpiece which could have easily slotted onto The Almighty’s ‘Powertrippin’. Broodingly intense, it varies from up-tempo hard rock groove to heavy and menacing coda. Throw in some magnificent soloing, and a bolstering Hammond organ, and what you have is a huge sounding reminder of just what this band is capable of when given free rein to soar.
‘The Killer Instinct’ is the sound of a band realising their potential unencumbered by expectation, developing and growing into their own skin. One of the hardest working acts around today, Black Star Riders have recorded an album that shows what they are truly capable of. You don’t have to be Irish to approve, but had he been around today, Phil Lynott would surely have given his blessing. Don’t be blindsided by history – ‘The Killer Instinct’ might just be their finest hour.
First published on uberrock.co.uk, 3 March 2015.