Somewhere near the beginning of their career, blues duo Black Pistol Fire released ‘Big Beat ’59’, a raw as hell album that cast them in a musical mould somewhere between The White Stripes and The Dead Exs. It didn’t always show a lot of invention in terms of garage blues, but it had a lot of balls, resulting in the kind of rough and ready record that should’ve appealed to all lovers of the style. The albums which followed showed a slight musical progression each time, along with a slightly slicker sound and the suggestion of a slightly bigger budget. This culminated in the release of 2017’s ‘Deadbeat Graffiti’ where the expected Black Pistol Fire raucousness was tempered by far more of an indie rock/blues hybrid sound in places. It was a sound that suited the band well, and on tracks like ‘Fever Breaks’ and ‘Bully’ they even appeared to give Arctic Monkeys a run for their money.
In terms of sounding more like Arctic Monkeys circa ‘AM’ and The Black Keys circa ‘Brothers’, their sixth album ‘Look Alive’ doesn’t just take small steps but a massive bloody leap. The record wastes no time in showing off its more commercial clothes either: it takes about two seconds before Kevin McKeown unleashes his inner Alex Turner on the title cut with a snide and affected delivery pitched against mid tempo beats and stabbed keys. In terms of style, though, it’s great: his confident sneer is the perfect fit for the moody indie rock sound that gradually unfolds over three minutes. The bass that weaves in and out of the steady rhythm creates a huge interest and – as if to throw older fans a massive bone – a fuzzy lead guitar break filling the latter part of the arrangement carries the unmistakable sound of earlier work. In an ideal world, this deserves to be an alternative radio hit.
The album’s best tracks often seem to cling onto these Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys obsessions. The crashy ‘Level’ shows off a number where big beats drop through a very melodic verse, eventually paying off on a stomping chorus with McKeown’s best retro cry being interspersed by sharp stabs of guitar noise. In some ways, it sounds like the ultimate send off for similar sounds from the previous album, while the ragged blues pop of ‘Black Halo’ takes the same core sound and offers the necessary variation through more of a late 50s twang and a few ugly electronic elements. Again, if you still reach for those Black Keys or later Arctic Monkeys LPs, there should be something for you here. Better than both, ‘Temper Temper’ utilises a heavy beat alongside distorted vocals and huge fuzz guitars to create the album’s instant standout. Much like The Black Keys’ best work, the song’s desires to latch onto some very commercial vibes is clear from the outset despite the huge amount of distortion applied. McKeown’s hefty bass work comes with plenty of clout when lending somewhat of an old school funk influence and this very much gives the garage rock elements something a little more interesting to work with. Within a single verse/chorus, it flaunts its Black Keys influence proudly…and if that weren’t glaringly obvious after a couple of minutes, a brief lead guitar break that threatens to drop into the ‘Lonely Boy’ riff at any second really hammers the point home. Sure, it’s all fairly plagiaristic, but it sounds good with the volume cranked.
Taking even more of a broad musical sweep, ‘Wildfire’ blends a twangy guitar with more of an apparent soulfulness, but it quickly veers far too far off piste when the vocal meters becomes more influenced by Craig David and UK garage than the far preferable Jack White sounds of old. Kudos to the band for trying something different, but it’s…fairly horrible, to say the least. Luckily, things get back on track very quickly with ‘Hope In Hell’, a slow and moody blues rocker where the ‘AM’ era Arctic Monkeys influence comes through very strongly. The blend of emotive lead vocals contrasted with haunting woo-woos would be enough to make this a great track, but the way the guitars are used with a much greater restraint provides one of the album’s most thoughtful performances. Also of particular note is the faster ‘Holdin’ Up’ where the band trades in the Arctic Monkeys love for a massive swathe of slide guitar fuzz underscoring a shrill vocal. It doesn’t take long at all before this starts to sound like something you’ve always known, and with a full of compliment of Jack White-esque wails in place of an actual chorus, it’s as if the older Black Pistol Fire have been allowed to intrude upon their slicker selves. For the next couple of minutes at least, the blend of raucousness and tight garage rock grooves results in another instantly familiar but hugely enjoyable tune.
Those looking for something a little different should head straight for ‘Never Enough’, where BPF take a brilliant side step and combine their typical garage-ish indie rock with elements of 80s funk. It’s particularly impressive how the duo are able to apply their trusted hard backbeat to a choppier guitar and bass grooves and make it seem like a very natural step. The bass that weaves between the stomping beats and creates a huge amount of interest, while a heavily treated guitar is latterly unleashed to remind listeners of the band’s previous anger. Between these two features alone, it becomes one of the most epic BPF tunes ever – and in terms of taking their talents into uncharted territory, this never sounds forced or like a band trying too hard to impress. In fact, it could provide a perfect new direction in the future…
‘Look Alive’s eleven songs have an indie rock grandiosity that shines through like no Black Pistol Fire work ever before. For all of its obvious strengths, however, it’s also a record that’ll make some of the band’s oldest fans angry. Some will surely scream “sell out” and a few might not even understand it at all. It’s worth remembering, though, that bands need to grow. After a decade of cult status, Black Pistol Fire deserve a massive breakout hit – especially with regard to securing a UK audience – and this album comes a fair bit closer to allowing them that opportunity. For anyone looking for an alternative to Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys, along the first two EPs by Twin Souls, this should more than hit the spot.
Read a review of ‘Big Beat ’59’ here.