VOODOO HILL – Waterfall

voodoo hillAfter three releases with Black Country Communion and one with subsequent spin-off band California Breed, legendary rock vocalist Glenn Hughes found himself very much back in vogue and at the top of his game. Those releases gained Glenn some of the most enthusiastic press he’d gained since the 70s. With that in mind, you’d think the next best move would be to relaunch his solo career and potentially give the world his strongest solo work since 1994 ‘From Now On’.

Hughes clearly had other ideas…and following the dissolution of California Breed, he reconnected with Italian guitarist Dario Mollo. Whether this was purely circumstantial or was something that had been bubbling on the back burner, at least from a public perspective, it seemed to be his least likely next move. The pair had collaborated on two Voodoo Hill albums in 2000 and 2004 respectively, and with over a decade since the release of ‘Wild Seed of Mother Earth’ it seemed they’d put the project to bed. Aside from anything else, neither of those albums were particularly exciting affairs…but even so, Voodoo Hill returned at the end of summer 2015 to bring a third instalment of melodic rock.

From the outset, ‘Waterfall’ seems stronger than any prior Voodoo Hill releases. ‘All That Remains’, in particular, kicks off the disc in a far more melodic fashion than anticipated. With plenty of mid-paced crunch, Mollo reigns in his guitar hero tendencies and instead lays down a chuggy riff, under which a solid foundation of keys reinforces the melody and any key changes. Bassist Dario Patti punctuates the melody with some rather solid work, while Hughes steals the show by offering a performance that’s big and passionate without being at all overpowering. With a perfect mix of rock belt and soulful curl, he sounds like the consummate professional. With an all round meatier sound, the stomping ‘The Well’ allows the rhythm section to up their game on a number that fuses the bombastic styles of Black Country Communion with a groove that could have been a high point of a Hughes solo disc twenty years previously. The chorus mightn’t be as well crafted on this one – there’s an odd, fractured approach to harmony vocals, but everything else is great: the rhythm guitars have a dirty tone throughout; Mollo’s featured solo is showy but always keeps a keen ear on melody. Out front and centre, Glenn pushes his voice for a grittier sound and pitches it just right, in the respect that’s there’s none of the gruffness that spoilt Voodoo Hill’s 2004 number ‘My Eyes Don’t See It’, or any overbearing wailing as per the opening track on the BCC debut. Moving into something more atmospheric, ‘Underneath and Down Below’ sounds a little eastern at first, as if VH are about to drop something else with a ‘Kashmir’ mould, but it then quickly moves into a solid hard rock verse. The pairing of Hughes’s big vocal style and Mollo adopting a soaring and bluesy tone has a fair amount of class, if not originality, while the surprisingly complex bass lines working beneath ensure nothing becomes leaden. The eastern hints soon reappear – first colouring the chorus, but ultimately absolutely powering the instrumental mid-section which, as you’d probably expect, steals a fair amount of influence from Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer’ and Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers’. It’s a great opportunity for Mollo to demonstrate a few guitar chops, while such classic rock fare surely comes as second nature to the seasoned Hughes.

With a heavy groove, ‘Evil Thing’ is a hard rock affair that brings out the best in Mollo’s guitar tone by focusing on grit and simplicity. Faced with a dirty riff, Hughes adopts a vocal stance similar to that of ‘All That Remains’, bringing volume without excessive wailing, while a gang vocal on the chorus makes a strong counterpoint. Elsewhere, ‘Karma Go’ presents a similar no-nonsense approach in the riff depot, but adds a quirky programmed drum – just enough to set it apart, but not sound intrusive – and has another rousing chorus that should appeal to fans of the style. For the most part, you’ll have heard these kind of rockers a hundred times before, but even so this represents well-arranged, suitably driving fare. Teasing with a quiet intro with a brilliant clean tone, ‘Eldorado’ at first sounds like it’ll be a big ballad…and then BOOM…Mollo collides with drummer Ricardo Vruna and the band launch into one of the album’s toughest riffs. Chuggy and suitably hard, it provides the perfect opportunity for Hughes to deliver a very confident rock vocal with everything eventually culminating in a grubby sounding and rather metallic guitar break. Like ‘Evil Thing’, this is thoroughly enjoyable old-school hard rock and none the worse for its retro sound.

Working around a solid bassline and hard (but fairly rudimentary) drum groove, ‘Sunflower’ quickly sounds better than the sum of its parts. The guitar playing switches from solid hard rock workouts to clean melodies, Hughes bends his voice around each line without resorting to oversinging and by the time things take hold, there’s almost a funky sway…but without ever shifting to actual funk. Mollo’s only concession to showboating comes via a solo that’s largely made up of string-bending trickery, while at the same time it never outstays its welcome. ‘Last Door’ rounds up most of Voodoo Hill’s signature sounds into an excellent five minute workout: classic hard rock riffing combined with a heatfelt vocal dominates, but there’s room enough for a melodic chorus and a complete shift in tone for the instrumental break. Here, Mollo unleashes his inner Blackmore for soaring leads over another ‘Stargazer’ type backdrop. This album has more than its share of great numbers, but it’s the title track potentially tops the lot. Clocking in at almost seven minutes, it’s fairly epic but isn’t padded out in any way. Right from the intro with Mollo playing over an ear-catching lead bass there’s a sense of it being an album highlight, but once Hughes steps forward with a gentle vocal, that cements it. Tackling something slightly meatier, the band plays a great and powerful tune – heavy on the drums, even heavier on the vocal for a harmony filled hook. This would already be a Voodoo Hill classic, but the appearance of orchestral sounds (presumably from a keyboard patch/sample) lift it to another level. By the mid-point, the strings have really asserted themselves, while Hughes unleashes the full power of his range and, pulling everything to a natural climax, Mollo breaks into a fiery solo that, while a little on the busy side, still retains a sense of occasion that Yngwie would struggle to adopt.

There are no skippers here and no obvious filler material. ‘Waterfall’ stands head and shoulders over the Mollo/Hughes collaborations of the noughties. Mollo is content to let melody override any guitar histrionics pretty much throughout, while Hughes comes across not only with the kind of professionalism you’d expect for a man with so many years in the business, but an approach to performance that seems to have improved after really upping his game with Black Country Communion and California Breed. Tried and tested as their musical ideas may be, this third album from Voodoo Hill is highly recommended listening for classic rock fans.

September 2015